The votes have been counted and verified, and the pies have been eaten; the results can be announced! Yes, the latest statistics reveal England’s leading Fatty Town is Rotherham, followed by another South Yorkshire Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Doncaster; hot on their heels is Halton in the North West. Waddling its way towards the top spot, Rotherham can boast more fatties amongst its population than anywhere else in the country; just under half of the town’s entire population are overweight, with 32.6% classed as obese.

Apparently, as much as a quarter of the population of the entire UK are now obese, but even though 40.4% of the English are overweight and 24.4% obese, England isn’t as abundant in blubber as Scotland, according to the NHS; last time the NHS looked, 27% of Scots were obese, with Wales ranking at 22%. The figures that awarded Rotherham the unenviable heavyweight crown were collated between 2013 and 2016, though England’s fattest geographical region is the North East; 41.5% of Tyne, Tees and Weir-siders are overweight, whereas 27.1% fall into the obese category. The Yorkshire & Humber region runs a close second, with the East Midlands behind that.

In a sense, the statistics paint a wider picture of what our own eyes are telling us whenever we’re out and about. A couple of times this week, I’ve been sat in a friend’s car whilst she’s popped into a shop on a retail park, and as I observed passers-by, I reckoned well over half of them were what could genuinely be called fat. When I was a child, fatties weren’t unheard of, but they were certainly less prevalent than today; most classes at school had the token fat kid, and most of us had a fat uncle or aunt; though there’s no doubt they were a far rarer sight than today, almost something of a novelty.

The blame game is inevitable when such a dramatic alteration to the national character as this occurs. Using my own childhood experience, I know for sure instant and frozen foods certainly existed, though they co-existed with meals consisting of fresh vegetables and the dreaded ‘greens’ that had such an unsavoury reputation. With parents raised on the legacy of wartime digging for victory and grandparents still possessing vivid memories of days that might go by without any food whatsoever, it was no wonder the importance of greens and meals cooked from scratch remained high. This thinking also extended to school dinners; but in order to make the far-from desirable recipe of cabbage, beetroot, spam fritters, lumpy mash and hard peas remotely tolerable, the prize at the end of this gastronomic obstacle course was a pudding bathed in custard, awarded to everyone who managed to grin and swallow their way through the first course, and washed down with that most basic of table wines – water.

Anyone of a certain age will recall that the chocolate bar Milky Way used to be advertised as ‘The sweet you can eat between meals without ruining your appetite’, with the emphasis on can. This carried clout with kids of my generation; if this statement was broadcast on TV, then it had to be true – right, mum? Therefore, it’s okay to guzzle one before teatime, yeah? It was also a canny tagline by the manufacturers because eating between meals was so frowned upon at the time that a chocolate bar sold as a sweet that wouldn’t interfere with the compulsory cleaning of the plate might just be a smart way round the unwritten rules of the nation’s children’s diet.

It’s no wonder the corner-shop did a roaring trade in penny sweets both on the way to and on the way back from school. Such cheap confectionary was within the budget of most kids (even those who helped themselves when the newsagent fatally turned his back) and wasn’t considered substantial enough to damage appetites for the next meal. The main accusation levelled at sweets was that they rotted your teeth if taken to excess, so most parents tolerated them as long as they were consumed in moderation. A proper chocolate bar boasting a big brand name or even a packet of crisps were a little pricier and therefore had an air of ‘treat’ about them, something one could look forward to perhaps once a week, though not much more often than that. They even used to print the actual price of the item on the wrapper then, as if to emphasise the gulf between it and the more accessible penny varieties stocking the shelves.

The sudden colonisation of the country by the burger-bar, something that seemed to happen from the second half of the 1980s onwards, is regularly blamed as the biggest cause of rising child obesity, and there’s no denying the proliferation of such fast-food quick-fix solutions to the headache of being a weekend dad haven’t helped. But the collapse of the old system when it comes to a daily dietary regime probably has more to answer for than the cure-all option of a Big Mac & Fries – specifically, the gradual abolition of the not-eating-between meals rule. Many of today’s parents had their childhood eating habits governed by the old order, yet unlike their own parents, have decided not to impose it on the next generation, instead turning their kitchen cupboards into an all-you-can-eat buffet. They no doubt blame McDonald’s or blame the electronic gadgets that keep their kids indoors even when the weather is ideal for playing-out. But they should really look a little closer to home, and in the mirror.

Outside of the actual food consumed, the subject of exercise is also unavoidable. One wonders how much of an impact the selling-off of school playing fields to developers and the cutting of extracurricular sporting activities have had, let alone the establishment of ‘the school run’, whereby walking to and from school has been superseded by the internal combustion engine. Throw in the reluctance of parents to let their children loose come summer holidays for fear of the prowling Paedo and it’s no wonder their offspring are waddling as much as their parents are.

Food that is deemed good for you today – sugar-free, organic and deprived of artificial colouring – is expensive and therefore only within the regular budget of the relatively affluent, whereas food that is deemed bad for you – loaded with sugar, salt and all those other tasty ingredients that clog-up arteries – is not only affordable for those on low incomes, but also more available. That the South East and London register at the bottom of the obesity chart speaks volumes, but idleness and ignorance play their part too. It is possible to eat healthily on a tiny budget; cooking healthy food is as cheap an option as opting for a pre-packaged and processed ready-meal crammed with chemicals, though why that message is failing to get through could be down to simple laziness. I myself purchased some broccoli and a courgette this morning, costing less than a quid. Carrots, cabbage, onions, lettuce and the rest remain cheaper than any packet of pound shop frozen plastic; but you can’t just bung them in the microwave for ten minutes. Say no more.

© The Editor




john-bull-and-dogHealth-wise, the Victorian era tends to throw up images of malnourished urchins with rotten teeth and rickets living on hard bread and mouldy cheese (if they were lucky) after a hard day’s work up a chimney. Not that this wasn’t the case where many of the working poor were concerned, but as a dietary portrait of an entire society it can not only have the effect of imbuing smugness and superiority in the Victorians’ descendents; it can also prove highly misleading, as has been pointed out in ‘How the Mid-Victorians Ate Worked and Died’, a new study published by MDPI, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

The Mid-Victorian period roughly covers 1850-75 and the MDPI report claims the generation that lived through that quarter-century was the healthiest this country has probably ever had in its history, a statement which certainly contradicts perceived wisdom. The notoriously high mortality rates in infancy could often be the greatest challenge to the prospect of a long life, but if one could make it to the age of 5, the compilers of the study say life expectancy was more or less the same, if not better, than it is today; and contrary to popular belief, we live on average no longer than they did.

Most fatalities in Mid-Victorian society were due to infections that a combination of improved sanitation and modern science has now rendered non-fatal if treated early enough; workplace accidents were a far higher cause of death as well, though the chronic degenerative diseases that are such prominent killers today were as much as 90% less prevalent than than they are now. And for all the moral panic over drunkenness amongst the poor, the alcoholic content of beer (the most commonly consumed drink during this period) was lower due to it being watered down to an extent than no publican could get away with in the twenty-first century. Even cancers were far rarer, especially of that of the lung variety, as the Mid-Victorian era predates the mass industrial production of cigarettes.

The more physical nature of work played its part in the health of the Mid-Victorians as much as what they ate; unlike 2016, very few professions consisted of sitting at a desk all day. They may have ingested between 50% and 100% more calories than us, but they burned it off through work; obesity was associated with the idleness of the wealthy and virtually unknown amongst the working-classes. Public transport was threadbare in comparison to now (not to mention pricey), with the majority walking to and back from their workplace, something Dickens vividly described when witnessing the march of the workers at the crack of dawn. Overall, physical activity far exceeded levels we indulge in today, a factor that undoubtedly contributed towards the healthier condition of the Mid-Victorians.

The Mid-Victorian diet in the study is compared to that of the Mediterranean diet and is regarded as superior to any government dietary recommendations issued now, let alone what the populace actually do eat in the twenty-first century. Most fruits and vegetables were affordable for even the poorest households, largely due to the growth of the railways, which enabled food to be delivered to markets and shops in far higher numbers. Onions, leeks, watercress, carrots, cabbage, turnips, peas, beans, artichokes, apples, plums, cherries and gooseberries were commonplace and cheap. Nuts, particularly chestnuts, were consumed with more regularity than they are today, whereas the presence of backyard hens provided a constant supply of eggs. The nature of the meat eaten back then may not appear especially appetising now (on the bone with accompanying offal), but it would seem the large amounts of fish and seafood that constituted the diet also aided good health.

Bereft of margarine and processed foods, not to mention a lower salt intake, the Mid-Victorians were of a sufficiently healthy constitution to power the engine of Empire as well as providing the armed forces with fitter men than ever. Ironically, Britain’s global dominance made it a target market for edible imports that began to flood into the country towards the end of the nineteenth century. Tinned meats were salt-heavy, whereas canned fruit was syrup-heavy, and condensed milk laden with sugar. It was the sudden increase in sugared foods that sowed the seeds of decline in this brief period of good health, rapidly ruining teeth to the extent that many of the foods consumed in large numbers before could no longer be eaten. This decline, which was so evident when men were being recruited for the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, served to create the popular image of the undernourished working poor that we now tend to associate with the whole of the Victorian era.

The MDPI report concludes that today’s intensively crown crops are less beneficial than the organically grown fruit and veg the Mid-Victorians ate, their meat was all free-range, and (to get technical for a mo) their diet contained ‘pharmacological levels’ of phytonutrients that were effectively protection against cancers, heart diseases and other degenerative disorders that are so in abundance today. It makes for surprising, sober and fascinating reading. Not only does it shine a fresh light on an era retrospectively (and, it would seem, erroneously) regarded as a low-point in public health; it also makes one realise that twentieth and twenty-first century advances in medical and pharmaceutical science are only ever a stay of execution when we’re being dished up crap.

© The Editor