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Weighing in

26 August 2016

RECEIVING the baton cleanly is something that women do better than men, judging by the relay finals in Rio. There was a resound­ing clunk from the direction of Theresa May’s office last week, however, which signalled the downplaying of a Cameron-backed campaign against junk food. The timing could not have been worse, coming just as celebrations are being planned for the UK’s Olympians in Manchester and London, to inspire another genera­tion of athletes. Olympic pools are supposed to be bigger than normal, but the Olympic pool of talent for the future is shrinking fast. Already one quarter of children below the age of ten, and two-thirds of all adults, are overweight. The proportion is set to rise. Nobody believed that a ban on advertising high-sugar foods, or the ending of promotional deals on junk food, would change the country’s eating habits overnight. But it is clear that regulation is needed. No food company will support a policy that cuts into its profits voluntarily, even if the Government asks nicely.

More is at stake than elite athletics. It has been estimated that obesity costs the NHS more than £6 billion a year. Moreover, it was calculated nine years ago that obesity cost the UK economy £15.8 billion. If the Government’s objective were merely to get the food and drink industry to cover the cost of the damage its products do, there would be some way to go. One surviving ele­ment of the anti-obesity drive, a tax on sugary drinks, is reckoned by some to be worth £1 billion in revenue, though even this figure has been disputed. The vision should be greater than a financial one, however: being overweight puts untold barriers between sufferers and the many activities that will improve their health and increase their happiness.

There is no perfect body shape, and being under­weight can be more harmful than being overweight. But over­weight people are not stupid, despite recent evidence that obesity causes brains to age as much as ten years faster than those of lean people. They are subject to the same media images of slim people as everyone else, and judge their own bodies accordingly. The growing concern about teenage mental health, affecting 27 per cent of girls and 15 per cent of boys, will have multiple causes, but one is certainly anxiety about body image. At the other end of life, medics have long been more interested in extending the period of healthy activity than in drawing out a bedridden penumbra. Again, the financial benefits are obvious, as are the gains in happiness.

The Church is rightly wary of subverting the message of God’s love for all, whatever size or shape. But a people who follow an embodied God must take note of the bodies they inhabit. They are subjected to the same temptations as the rest of society. A survey of London diocese in 2014 reckoned that 40-50,000 people were taking part in regular church-related sport or physical activity. If, as Mark Vernon argues on this page, the Church ought to be seen as a promoter and source of well-being, the physical aspect of this should not be neg­lected; but little can change until the country’s diet does. The Government really does need to get physical with the food and drink industry.

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