I’ve recently lost a substantial amount of weight. That’s not a humblebrag, it’s going to be relevant, I promise. It’s taken the best part of 20 years to find something that works for me, and I’ll come back to that later. How our society discusses diet and weight was mostly to blame for why it’s taken so long. When I was a teenager, I used to voraciously read women’s magazines while keeping out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day on holiday. Oh, the diet articles in some of those. It was awful. Everything was egg whites and Ryvita. Everything.
And then, imagine, you see something like those Cancer Research adverts. You’ve already seen in the media that a bland diet is something to aspire to, a good way to lose weight, and now you’re seeing that if you’re fat you’ll die. Can you blame a teenager for coming to the conclusion that living longer on miserable food isn’t actually that great a deal? Especially when cheese, chocolate, and chips exist. (Not together, although I did go there on a dare once.)
This is where the recent party proposals on food and drink taxation come in. So, imagine you’re a young adult now, and your understanding of diet is (still) that you can have nice food and be fat or have boring food and be thin. Is a tax going to change your mind about that? Or will you just spend more of your student bursary on that chocolate bar? It’s anecdotal, but that’s how people respond to ‘sin taxes’ more generally. Denmark had a fat tax, and gave up on a proposed sugar tax, because people literally preferred to go to shop in Germany than to pay it. Just process that, for a second: people actively chose to go and shop in a different currency to avoid the kind of tax our party is proposing a consultation on.
In reality, changing the way you eat can’t be done in the short term with nudge policies. Back to what worked for me. It was the concept behind the programme ‘Cook Yourself Thin’. You can eat whatever you like. You don’t have to cut out any food groups. You certainly don’t have own a cupboard full of Ryvita and live on steamed vegetables. What you can do is make lower-calorie substitutions for the things you love. The cookbook’s got a chocolate truffle recipe in it. It even recommends swapping a cookie for Jaffa cakes.
You have to do something which is sustainable for you. Otherwise you simply will not be able to keep it off. Most people put the weight they lose back on again. A sugar tax is nothing more than a money-spinning measure: if you have the spare cash, you’ll still buy it. It won’t make you successfully change the way you live. That’s far more personal and complex than most people like to think.
As liberals, our response to treating obesity should recognise that it’s not a quick-fix topic. Our philosophy leads us to respect the individual and their decisions, and that should also apply to health-related behaviours. The stigmatisation of overweight people is known to be counterproductive. It made me reject public health messaging for two decades. We should not (however well-intentioned) reinforce that attitude. Our approach, instead, should reject an attempt to nudge people down one rigid path, and use the health and education systems to help them discover the path that they can stick to in the long run.
* Hannah Bettsworth is a Lib Dem activist who recently obtained a Masters in European Affairs and lives and works in Brussels.