Lifestyle Economics Blog

The Fat Lie - the real cause of the rise in obesity

Obesity prevalence has increased sharply in Britain since the 1970s. Many public health campaigners portray Britain’s obesity ‘epidemic’ as being caused by the increased availability of high calorie foods, sugary drinks and larger servings in restaurants. This view has been reflected in television programmes such as The Men Who Made Us Fat (BBC), which focus on the supposed rise in calorie consumption while paying little attention to the other side of the equation: physical activity. Some campaigners explicitly dismiss physical activity as a factor. For example, Aseem Malhotra, science director of Action on Sugar, says that ‘it’s time to bust the myth of physical activity and obesity’.

Today, the IEA has released a briefing paper that demonstrates that this conventional wisdom has no basis in fact. If people are ‘being bombarded every day by the food industry to consume more and more food’, as some claim, then the industry has failed. Consumption of calories - and of sugar and fat - has fallen significantly while obesity rates have risen.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) has carried out annual surveys of the British diet since 1974. These surveys are based on diet diaries compiled by a cross-section of the public and are supported by till receipts (DEFRA, 2013). Shown in the graph below, these data indicate a significant decline in daily per capita calorie consumption in the last forty years, from 2,534 in 1974 to 1,990 in 2012. This represents a decline in energy consumption of 21.5 per cent.

This is corroborated by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) which began in the 1990s, the results of which can be compared to the Dietary and Nutritional Survey of British Adults which holds data for 1986/87. These surveys collect data for food and drink consumed inside and outside the home. Shown below, they indicate that average calorie consumption has fallen by 9.8 per cent for 19-64 year olds since 1986/87.

Both datasets also show a decline in per capita consumption of carbohydrates (including sugar) and fat (including saturated fat).

It is clear that average body weight has been rising for decades while average calorie consumption has been declining. Assuming that the laws of thermodynamics are correct, there can be only one explanation for this: Britons are, on average, burning fewer calories than we used to.

This should not be surprising. The transition from manual labour to office work saw jobs in agriculture decline from eleven to two per cent of employment in the twentieth century while manufacturing jobs declined from 28 to 14 per cent of employment. Britons are walking less (from 255 miles per year in 1976 to 179 miles in 2010) and cycling less (from 51 miles per year in 1976 to 42 miles in 2010). Only 18 per cent of adults report doing any moderate or vigorous physical activity at work while 63 per cent never climb stairs at work and 40 per cent spend no time walking at work. Outside of work, 63 per cent report spending less than ten minutes a day walking and 53 per cent do no sports or exercise whatsoever. Add to this the ubiquity of labour-saving devices and it is clear that Britons today have less need, and fewer opportunities, for physical activity both in the workplace and at home.

Obesity features so often in the media that it is surprising that the data shown in this briefing paper are not better known. The myth that Britons are consuming more and more food has persisted for the following two reasons:

Firstly, there is a tendency to import narratives from the USA where, in contrast to the UK, calorie consumption rose in line with obesity rates for many years. This dual trend had come to an end by 1990, however, and the role of chronic physical inactivity is beginning to be acknowledged as the driver of rising obesity in the years since.

Secondly, the food supply is a more inviting target for health campaigners than the sedentary lifestyles of the general public. A war against ‘Big Food’ requires no stigmatisation of individuals (other than the individuals who work in the food industry) and there are a readymade set of policies available which have been tried and tested in the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol. Instigating such a war, however, requires the public to believe that food companies have acted unscrupulously by stuffing unwitting consumers full of calories, forcing large portions upon them and spiking their meals with sugar and fat. The data shown in this paper are clearly not helpful to that narrative.

Such is the sensitivity of the public health lobby to this sort of information that when two researchers published a paper showing that sugar consumption had been declining in Australia for thirty years while obesity had been rising, they were branded ‘a menace to public health’ and investigated for scientific misconduct. They have since been exonerated, but the title of their study - ‘The Australian Paradox’ - highlights how deeply rooted is the belief that obesity can only be the result of increased sugar and/or calorie consumption at the population level. As the evidence from the UK - and, in recent times, the USA - shows, it is no paradox at all.

Download The Fat Lie

Search

Christopher Snowdon
4 July 2014
The e-cigarette market in Britain has the closest thing to perfect competition that you will see in the real world. Perfect competition is a theoretical economic model but, like most economic models...
Christopher Snowdon
15 June 2014
Alcohol policy in Britain and many other countries aims to reduce per capita alcohol consumption in the belief that this will inevitably reduce heavy and harmful drinking. Campaigners cite the...
Christopher Snowdon
4 June 2014
The US Food and Drug Administration is considering making a calculation of the pleasure that people get from using e-cigarettes and tobacco products. It has suggested that financial estimates of the...
Christopher Snowdon
13 May 2014
The Economist has put a nice little chart together based on the latest World Health Organisation report on alcohol. It shows alcohol consumption per capita but also per drinker. Contrary to...
Christopher Snowdon
1 May 2014
Much of the moral panic about gambling in recent years has centred on the claim that the number of problem gamblers has "increased by 50% in three years" and that the UK has 450,000...
Christopher Snowdon
24 March 2014
The latest installment of the plain packaging saga is expected to arrive before the end of the month. After the initial public consultation found that two-thirds of those who responded were opposed...
Christopher Snowdon
19 March 2014
Today's budget was another curate's egg from the perspective of lifestyle liberty. The decision to scrap the alcohol duty escalator is very welcome, as is the freezing of spirits and cider...
Christopher Snowdon
18 March 2014
The authors of the report that claims that inequality costs the UK £39 billion a year (see yesterday’s post) say that rates of imprisonment would fall by 37 per cent in a ‘more...
Christopher Snowdon
17 March 2014
On Sunday, the Observer reported that ‘Inequality “costs Britain £39bn a year’. This is based on the belief that ‘a more equal UK would experience less crime and...
Christopher Snowdon
18 February 2014
As reported in The Guardian and elsewhere, the Alcohol Health Alliance has issued a press release in response to the ongoing campaign to bring an end to the alcohol duty escalator which, according to...
Christopher Snowdon
5 February 2014
In June 2012, the IEA published Sock Puppets, a report which looked at the evidence, and implications, of taxpayer funding for the large and growing element of ‘civil society’ that is...
Christopher Snowdon
4 February 2014
The French think tank Institut économique Molinari has recently published a clear and well-referenced report that looks at the false premises and negative consequences associated with sin...
Ryan Bourne
30 January 2014
It’s often said that modern day politicians lack conviction – that is, they are afraid of expressing their firmly held beliefs. This is not universally true, of course. But one of the...
Christopher Snowdon
7 January 2014
Ed Miliband’s pledge to crack down on the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ is a significant moment in the extraordinary moral panic over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). Last...
Christopher Snowdon
14 October 2013
The poorest twenty per cent of households in Britain spend an average of £1,286 per year on ‘sin taxes’, including betting taxes, vehicle excise duty, air passenger duty, ‘...
Christopher Snowdon
4 September 2013
Many 'public health' policies aimed at reducing harmful alcohol use, such as minimum pricing, are underpinned by a belief in the Total Consumption Model. This model—also known as the...
Christopher Snowdon
1 August 2013
In 2010, a piece of research was published by Policy Exchange, a think tank, which managed to lodge one "fact" into the public's consciousness which has persisted every since. Namely,...
Christopher Snowdon
12 July 2013
So it's official. Neither the UK government nor the European Parliament will be legislating to put tobacco in plain packaging. It looks very likely that minimum pricing for alcohol will also be...
e-cigarettes, snus, harm reduction
Christopher Snowdon
11 July 2013
Are free markets incompatible with good health? To hear some of the rhetoric that comes from the medical establishment, you might think so. If the solution to every problem involves banning...
Barrie M. Craven, Michael L. Marlow and Alden F. Shiers
27 June 2013
Excessive alcohol consumption is associated with many deleterious effects on individual health.  Its negative impact on wider society includes crime (including domestic violence), drunk driving...

Invest in the IEA. We are the catalyst for changing consensus and influencing public debate.

Donate now

Thank you for
your support

Subscribe to
publications

Subscribe

eNEWSLETTER