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ENGLAND’s chief medical officer (CMO) Dame Sally Davies ducks the most important issue concerning women’s obesity in her latest annual report.
She is right to point to the magnitude of the problem, although equating it with terrorism and cyber-crime is to sensationalise — and thereby risk trivialising — it. She is right, too, to call for tackling obesity among the population at large to be a national priority.
Obesity increases the risk of contracting cancer, type two diabetes, heart disorders and other diseases. It can drastically reduce both the quality and length of life.
One quarter of adults in Britain have a body mass index which categorises them as not only overweight but obese, with a slightly higher rate in Scotland and a lower one — although not for children — in Wales.
While a higher proportion of men than women are obese, the situation is reversed for young women (aged 16-24).
Dame Sally’s report, The Health of the 51 per cent: Women, contains numerous and detailed recommendations to address obesity as it manifests itself in the different stages of women’s lives, including the prenatal and perinatal periods and the menopause.
It also contains other vital sections on gender-based violence and mental health which should not be overlooked.
But in presenting her report, England’s CMO proposes little to combat obesity on the scale required, beyond calling upon manufacturers and retailers to cease manufacturing and promoting unhealthy food or face a “sugar tax.”
While the former would be beneficial, the latter would also punish the poor with higher prices without greatly changing people’s diets.
This brings us to the enormous elephant in the room. The reality is that many people’s eating habits, obesity and physical health are closely related to their income and social class.
This has been widely known in professional and academic circles since at least the publication of the Black Report, which the Thatcher government tried to suppress in 1980.
Today, countless studies in Britain, the US, Australia and elsewhere confirm the link between socioeconomic status, income, poverty, obesity, ill health and life expectancy.
This link is particuarly strong in the case of women. For example, whereas between 29 and 35 per cent of female manual workers in England are obese, compared with 18-21 per cent of female managers and professionals, the proportions for men are 24-27 and 20-24 per cent respectively.
In the poorest 40 per cent of English households, 31 per cent of women are obese, compared with 24-29 per cent of men. In the highest-income fifth, on the other hand, the proportions are 19 and 24 per cent. The same disparities exist among children, but are even more pronounced.
While some authors in Dame Sally’s report mention social status and low income as a factor exacerbating women’s obesity, nowhere is this elaborated and addressed.
The political, social and cultural implications of doing so would be vast.
It would mean putting an end to gender pay discrimination and poverty wages, increasing welfare benefits — especially for parents and carers — instead of cutting them, investing massively in health services — including for women — instead of squeezing budgets in the quest for £20 billion “efficiency savings,” making leisure and fitness facilities easily available for all instead of raising charges or curtailing them, and making playing fields and parks safe and accessible for children instead of selling them off and sacking our few remaining park wardens.
It would mean expanding public investment in information, education, services and health.
Above all, it means women enjoying equality of income, wealth, aspiration and opportunity.
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