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George Mitchell: It’s time to stop making excuses for our unhealthy habits

George believes we need to take a healthier approach to food rather than relying on taxes.
George believes we need to take a healthier approach to food rather than relying on taxes.

There’s a new report doing the rounds that says we should increase taxes on salt and sugar in foods in order to improve the health of the nation.

It also says GPs should be prescribing vegetables.

My jaw fell open at that suggestion. I had to check the calendar… no, it wasn’t April Fools’ Day.

It said if the report was implemented in full, it could save 38 calories per person per day. What? I can burn 38 calories by walking up the stairs.

What about personal responsibility?

The author of the report goes on to say that the “food junk cycle must be broken”. He is correct. But taxes won’t do it.

My biggest gripe with this debate is that it focuses on the “fact” that obesity is a result of people being poor. I’m sure this is the case for some, but for many who are unhealthy due to what they eat, it has little to do with being poor.

Is the lack of a healthy diet really down to finances?

Poor? I’ve seen poor, real poor, and I’ve yet to see a poor obese person in the 80-plus countries I’ve been in.

I want to make it abundantly clear, I am fully aware that thousands need to use food banks due to losing their jobs and not able to feed their families. I am certainly not having a go at them. Food banks are sadly vital, and I will be writing columns on that in the near future.

I am also not having a go at anyone who is overweight through no fault of their own. In fact, I’m not even having a go at anyone who is overweight.

Please believe me, this is not a column berating anyone who is genuinely broke and cannot afford to buy food. It is a column on our food habits in general, our reliance on takeaway and mass-produced ready-made food, and the fact that many in the media claim people can’t afford to buy fresh food.

In the UK we have one of the highest rates of child obesity in Europe. Is this really all down to poverty? For some maybe, but overall, I do not believe so.

We have an unbelievably bad relationship with food in the UK.

Why are we getting so fat and unhealthy as a nation? Obesity levels have soared in the UK. Not in poor countries where folk have way less money, but in western countries where we have more money.

We don’t seem to cook much anymore. It seems to be a case of can’t cook/won’t cook. Do we even teach cooking in schools these days? We should do.

Longer working hours, kids to look after, easier and quicker to order takeaways or bung something in the microwave. I get it, but your health, and that of those you love, surely is the number one priority?

Too many people rely on ready-meals rather than cooking healthy food from scratch. 

Surely people should take more personal responsibility for their own health?

Also, I just do not accept that eating healthy food costs a fortune, it does not. Keep reading and I’ll prove it.

Fat is a modern, demonised word. But eating fat does not necessarily make you fat.

Back in our grandparents’ day they ate butter, eggs, cream, lard even. Obesity and heart disease? Hardly existed. And they had far less money to spend on food.

On the subject of fat, millions are suckered into buying low-fat products. They think it’s healthy. Often it’s not, as the natural fat in, say, yoghurt, which is actually good for you, is replaced with sugar and other nasties. Buy natural and you won’t go far wrong.

Also, if you tax fat, then you tax healthy things such as avocados, nuts and full-fat natural yoghurt, to name but a few.

It’s all about personal choice. 

“Stop the companies from making unhealthy food,” someone said to me recently. Not practical, the mass-produced food industry with its cheap-quality ingredients is worth billions, it’s never gonna happen.

Another said: “They should stop selling us cheap junk food.”

“I’ve a better idea – just don’t buy it!” I said.

Take some responsibility.

How do we stop this slide into obesity and disease? Surely it has to be education. But have we not tried enough? We’ve been banging on about it for years. Is there any sane adult out there that doesn’t know you really should not be eating pies and cakes and greasy takeaway washed down with a litre of fizz on a daily basis?

There’s around 28g, that’s seven teaspoons of sugar, in one can of fizzy drink. Is it right that we should legally force, say, Coke, to reduce the sugar in its bottles or cans?

Possibly, but why just choose not to pour litres of the stuff down your throat in the first place?

What is worse I feel is supermarket mass-produced ready-made meals. Often laden with fat, salt and sugar. And this is the stuff that many seem to eat on a regular basis.

And they are not cheap.

Tax them or ban them? How about just not buying them in the first place and preparing your own food?

If you can afford to order takeaway, be it a huge pizza the size of a tractor tyre, buckets of chicken or whatever, you can afford to cook and eat a healthy meal. You’ll even save money.

We seem to be ordering and eating more takeaways then ever before. 

Takeaway back in the day used to be a luxury, a Saturday night treat, for example. Now for millions it’s their staple diet. What has gone wrong?

I admit to being a nosey shopper, and do occasionally take a sneaky peak into people’s trolleys in the supermarket, discreetly of course. Often, I am astonished at what goes in there. I’m certainly no saint – peer into mine and for sure you’ll find a bar of dark chocolate or two, or even a cheeky fancy piece – but some folks’ trolleys are brimming with packs of ready-made meals, mass-produced pizza, 24 cans of juice, even meat for the barbecue covered in sugary marinade. What do they expect when the weight piles on?

Again I say, all this stuff is not cheap. So why do I keep hearing that people can’t afford to eat healthy?

The big elephant in the room, when it comes to health and being overweight, is rarely discussed when we tackle this topic. Its’ not just about eating junk, it’s exercise. Or lack of it.

As a kid of the ’70s, we ate a silly amount of sugar and junk. But almost none of us were fat. Why? Physical exercise. We ran around, climbed trees, played football after school, rounders, tag, whatever it was, until we dropped.

We need to encourage children to exercise more to stay healthy.

If we wanted a bag of chips, we walked to the chippy then walked back! We even, shock horror, had to get up off our bums to turn over the TV channel.

Now people just sit, and everything happens due to the advancement of technology.

Ordering pizza from our sofa via our phone pretty much sums up our modern world.

We are going to balloon in the coming decades. American-style here we come.

It has become too easy to order junk food – technology encourages laziness and bad habits. 

Diets are horrible and make you feel like you are missing out. Eating nothing but lettuce and cottage cheese will send most into a spiral of depression, and they’ll soon be back on the cakes.

I’m not embarrassed to say that I was fat at 21. Why? I ate junk and drank pints of beer and didn’t exercise. These days, as well as loads of veg, I eat fish, meat, eggs, butter and cheese. I don’t count calories or fat. I just never eat mass-produced food and always cook my own if at all possible.

I’m not suggesting for a second that everyone should eat organic broccoli, wild sea bass and such like. I don’t. Far too expensive.

Hang on, give me half an hour…

30 minutes later.

OK, I’m just back from the nearest supermarket to where I live. Here’s what I saw. Bag of carrots 27p, parsnips 39p, lentils 99p, bag of spuds 67p, broccoli 47p, bag of bananas 69p, tin of chopped tomatoes 37p, 1 kilo of natural yoghurt £1.09, 1.6 kilo fresh chicken £3.75, 1 kilo of fresh beef mince £2.98. The list of affordable fresh food goes on and on. £11.67. I could cook four nights of meals for a family of four on that. £11.67 divided by 16 meals, 73p per person per meal.

Healthy food versus junk food – it’s our choice. 

For me, at the end of the day, the bottom line is this. As much as I want everyone to not put mass-produced food into their bodies and enjoy the wonders of eating home-cooked food from scratch, I’m also a passionate believer in freedom of choice. So, if millions choose to not eat well and keep eating junk, surely, they have that right?

I just wish that we stopped hearing that for many people who find themselves overweight and live off takeaway, that they cannot afford to cook healthy food.

I’ll say it again, if you can afford takeaway and ultra-processed ready-made food, you can afford to cook a healthy and tasty meal, and actually at a fraction of the cost.