I am Welsh by birth and upbringing, though have lived in Scotland for almost the last 30 years, so there was a fair degree of spluttering into my muesli-encrusted white sausage supper the other night. A few deep fried Mars bars later (medicinal of course) and I was able to absorb the message that if I didn’t want to die then I should eat like the English. Well, that’s going to go down well then.
Last week saw a flurry of news items based around a paper in BMJ Open which according to the media proved that the “English” diet could save lives if taken up elsewhere in the United Kingdom. A better diet was the way to be English. The original paper derived a model from data in the Family Food Survey and national mortality registers to show that lives could be extended if we ate better. This is a truism, but the nationalistic angle proved irresistible to the media.
A summary of the research and of the coverage is provided by NHS Choices.
The media coverage focused on a number of angles, but a common theme was the idea that a “health tax” on fatty and salty foods might be one way of closing the divide. To be fair to the researchers, the original paper stated “that fiscal initiatives aimed at increasing the cost of foods high in saturated fat (so called ‘fat taxes’) may be best placed to reduce geographical inequalities in health if they are paired with subsidies for fruit and vegetables” (my emphasis). The combination of tax and subsidy seemed to go missing in some reports.
But this is a model, based on a set of dietary data and known differences in mortality rates. As the researchers also note, whilst they have tried to adjust for smoking and alcohol consumption, they may not have fully succeeded and other confounding factors may still be in play.
Which raises the question; why do the Scots still consume such an unheathy diet? Research has shown it is not down to availability of healthy products, and it is hard to see any differential between Scotland and England in pricing. Yet, price seems to be the weapon of choice in this battle, and only in the form of taxes – notably in Scotland the plan to introduce minimum alcohol pricing next year (and not through the best mechanism of duty and VAT as these powers are reserved for the UK). If it is bad for you, then try to price it out of the market and hope the differential with healthy products mops up the slack. Are such one way approaches really the best?
This dietary issue and the price of healthy products relative to non-healthy ones made me think of the data in the Asda Income Tracker. The most recent report shows the pressure consumers are under, but it also showed some interesting regional variations:
The Asda Income Tracker measures net income less basic spend to give a sense of what families may have available to them. The table shows the disparities in parts of the UK, both in absolute terms and in the effect of the recession in last two years. Perhaps the pressures on people in Northern Ireland and Scotland mean they have little appetite left for searching out the most healthy and possibly more expensive foods. We know it makes sense to eat better, but breaking out of routines when life is tough, is not that easy.
And that brings me to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (born in London, brought up in Gloucestershire, educated at Eton College and St. Peter’s College, Oxford) who obviously has a TV series and a book to promote for Christmas. This time he has given up meat and gone vegetarian – breaking his routine. So far, so good, and I actually enjoy watching Hugh, and his campaigns and approach have much merit. So why did he have to court publicity by saying that morally we should be eating puppies as much as other meat?
So here’s another reason to be worried about this English diet – Poodle hot pot or Corgi curry just seems a bit wrong.
In all this there are many serious messages, but when we go for sensationalism the messages get lost. Yes, the Scottish diet could do with improvement, but not in every place and every case. And the English diet is not a particular piece of virtue; certainly not in football fans’ stomachs I am forced to see on the TV week in, week out. The variations within a country are as big as the variations between countries. Maybe more targeted and focused thought might help provide more appropriate and more actionable answers.
Anyhow, it’s time for walkies – after all, lean meat is best.