Nutrition is not a private choice

10 March 2017

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AS THOUGH to coincide with the start of Lent, the Institute of Eco­nomic Affairs (IEA) published a report on Thursday of last week chal­­­leng­ing the belief that poor nut­rition and obesity are causally linked to economic deprivation.

Based on pricing data from ASDA and Tesco, the report sets out to demonstrate that healthy food is, in fact, cheaper than junk food. For the price of a cheeseburger, you can get 15 portions of fruit or veg, and still have change. “The idea that poor nutrition is caused by the high cost of healthy food is simply wrong,” the report’s author, Chris­topher Snowdon, said.

All of this is true. It is also true that obesity and poor nutrition are not only problems for the poor. There are plenty of obese children from affluent middle-class homes, where nutrition problems cannot be blamed on lack of funds.

But if the report is suggesting that it is a straightforward matter of choice for poor people to eat health­ily, it is surely missing the point. And this is where Mr Snowdon does not quite declare his hand. He is, in fact, a polemicist against the “nanny state”; he opposes government inter­vention in such matters as the price of alcohol and the amount of sugar in foods. In other words, he believes in the power of choice.

He does not seem to accept what others find persuasive: that oppor­tunities for choice increase with affluence and depend on a culture of curiosity, empowerment, and as­­pira­tion. Those on low incomes are not easily persuaded that they have much in the way of choice. The obvious facts are against them.

I have visited sprawling council estates where local food shops barely bother to stock fruit and vegetables at all. Shelves and fridges are stuffed with white bread, plastic ham, and lurid-coloured fizz.

Add to that the fragility of many families, and the lack of home-economic skills, which these days are not handed down from parents to children, but are the preserve of the aspirational, who glean them from TV shows and colour supplements. Put all that together, and you begin to see the superficiality of Mr Snow­don’s analysis.

Surely in Lent, as we consider our own patterns of hunger, abstinence, and consumption, we can see that poor nutrition is more than a matter of private choice. The persistent anxiety that runs through society can make anyone reach for the high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt comfort options, in preference to leafy greens and pulses.

In this, the poor are particularly vulnerable. And our vulnerabilities are exploited by those who continue to feed our addictions, making mon­ey out of misery.

To read the report in full, visit www.iea.org.uk.

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