As an eleven-stone, 58 year-old smoker, with an appetite constantly suppressed by skinny roll-ups, I gain some cruel pleasure from seeing my fat friends waddling around.
By ignoring the basic rule that intake in energy must not exceed expenditure thereof, they put their hearts at just as much risk as mine, spend just as much on what’s bad for them and attract just as many disapproving looks as any smoker huddled in a shop doorway. And they have to deal with deep self-loathing, too!
Who’s the blame for all the lard? Well, according to a growing body of scientific opinion, at least, it’s Big Sugar – and the industry’s guilt is all the worse for its history of falsifying and suppressing research. In this narrative, from the middle to the end of the 20th century, the sweet white powder’s purveyors spent huge sums throwing the blame for growing obesity on to animal fats, when they knew all along that they were at fault.
The result, in this scenario, is that the general population – encouraged by supra-national bodies such as the WHO – took a 50-year diversion into low-fat diets, with food producers compensating for the absence of taste with sugar, salt and chemicals. The consequence of that has been the waddlers – and nowhere more than in the land of my fathers.
To be fair, actually, Malta is fatter on average than Eire. But the Irish Times is sufficiently horrified to warn this week that – gasp, it really must be bad – ‘sugar is the new smoking’.
In an interview with the physicist-turned-nutrition-journalist Gary Taubes, the paper asks him how much sugar is too much. To which he replies: “How many cigarettes are too many cigarettes? What if the person who smoked a pack a week outlived the person who smoked a pack a day? Would we conclude that inhaling a pack of cigarettes a week is safe?”
The unspoken answer, then, is that any sugar is too much for a healthy life. Which raises the second question: ‘What should we do about it?’ Well, we know how one section of society will react: they will shrug their shoulders, say ‘There you go’ and resolve to cut out the mid-morning biscuits. As for the rest, they will demand taxes, restrictions, advertising bans and health warnings on products – all the rigmarole already deployed against smoking.
Will the interventionists succeed? Maybe, if you define success as keeping people alive, joylessly working into their seventies to support themselves in even older age – and then cruelly, given welfare budgets – until their personalities disappear in the fog of dementia. But might human existence be better for less coercion? We would venture to say so.
By all means, let the health lobbies educate; just not legislate. The fruits of disinterested science – where they can be found – are welcome guidelines in an uncertain world. But we don’t need paths paved for us, nor areas declared off-limits. To be properly alive, we must reserve the right to stray where we like – even when we know it’s dangerous.
by Michael Finn