‘Banish plump Jack and banish half the world…’

Lewisham is getting fatter – at least its people are. On a recent walk from Lewisham Hospital to the church (a distance of some three-quarters of a mile) I counted no less than nine people who could be described as clinically obese. When you consider that Lewisham is not a venue for American tourists, you will understand my alarm.

At the risk of sounding both sexist and racist I need to record that women outnumbered men (by eight to one) and black women outnumbered white (by five to three). Judging from further and more general observation I would say that those proportions fairly accurately reflect the profile of the problem. All the subjects were what one could, without fear of contradiction, call working class; though work, as the world knows it, was something of which few would have been medically capable.

If Lewisham is fairly typical – and I have no reason to suppose that it is not – we clearly have an epidemic on our hands. The questions we need to ask, therefore, are how and why? How do people get so fat, and what is the root cause of the problem?

It would be easy to suppose that it is diet. You have only to look into the shopping trolleys of other customers in the queue to see that convenience foods have largely replaced fresh meat, vegetables and fruit in the lives of many.

Poverty is obviously not the main problem. Work-loads may well be. When both parents are working – and the British work the longest hours in Europe – the time to prepare fresh food is limited. Marauding, brawling children can easily be silenced with a deep frozen pizza. The temptation to have the same yourself and settle down in front of the telly must be overwhelming.

But, despite the fact that my local supermarket devotes twice as much shelf space to crisps and related gastronomic ephemera as to fruit, I am not persuaded that ignorance or neglect of sound nutrition is wholly to blame. Like the recently revealed and alarming figures about the number of young people who deliberately wound themselves with knives and razor blades, the epidemic increase in obesity must surely be a signal of some larger, but hidden, social malaise.

Obesity is like the binge drinking which disfigures our high streets. Call me an old-fashioned leftist, but it seems to me there is something about a consumerist culture which encourages just that – consumption. Sensible knickers and socks from M&S have been replaced (so the retail gurus tell us) by wear-and-ditch tee-shirts from a supermarket, made in some jungle sweatshop by wage slaves we do not want to hear about. Never mind about the quality, grab the quantity. Buy one, get one free: the least plausible and yet the most successful slogan in the history of marketing.

And then there is the related matter of education. As the levels of examination achievement soar, the levels of literacy decline; and people ringing from call centres in the Punjab speak better English than the local operator selling double glazing. It is not that people who read fluently and well tend to be thinner. It is simply that they have and develop wider and more varied interests. They get out and about more. Comfort-eating is a symptom of boredom or depression. And anyone who spends time in today’s schools will be aware that boredom levels have reached astronomical proportions.

Then of course there is cultural expectation. Jumbo sizes – in the US at least – are directly related to jumbo portions. Anyone who has travelled the Middle West of the United States will be aware that anything less than half a cow is considered an unmanly provision. And I can vividly remember, in Chicago, being offered enough zucchini fritti to serve a normal family of six.

Something of the same is to be found here as well. The All-Day-Breakfast which is served across the road from my house is vast in proportions and rich in cholesterol. And yet it is the most popular of the many possibilities offered on a menu which is generally high in quantity and low on quality. There would, I am sure, be no way of persuading those with whom such a diet is popular that a little lightly grilled calf’s liver and a green salad would be both more delicious and more nutritious.

Then there is snacking. There is now, especially in our inner cities, an entire class of persons who cannot walk without eating or eat without walking. The two activities have become inseparable. The resultant litter is, of course, a problem; but the effect on the overall diet is more so. People do not prowl the streets of Lewisham eating oranges and olives. What they browse and sluice is heavy in carbohydrates, saturated fats and sugar. Much of the meat is what is euphemistically described as ‘reclaimed’. A veritable army of E-numbers marches out of every cellophane packet.

Last of all, there is the matter of self-esteem. These ladies (and they are predominantly ladies) are not the sort of people who have read their Germaine Greer and self-consciously decided to reject the male-dominated world of high fashion in favour of becoming earth-mothers. They are readers of Hello! magazine for whom femininity consists principally in looking as much like Posh Spice or one of the cast of Footballers’ Wives. Probably, at some deep unconscious level, they want to sport the improbably tight trousers and bare mid-riffs which characterize the Happy Hour Crowd. But failure has lead to depression and depression to a further lowering of self-expectation. As in some horrific science-fiction drama they are compelled to go through life wearing someone else’s face.

Can (or ought) anything to be done about this complex problem?

Recent research has shown an increasing public intolerance of smokers. It seems that as a nation we are in two minds: we think that people have a perfect right to risk their own health, but that they ought in some way to be penalized for the undue call they make on the public heath services as a result. We certainly think that children should be prevented from smoking (at least to the age of eighteen).

Would this appetite for state regulation in issues of public health extend to obesity, if a campaign similar to that promoted by anti-smoking groups were mounted? And can such a campaign be envisaged? A person’s size is a far more intimate matter than their smoking habits. Would such a campaign, which government think tanks have not ruled out, spell disaster and discredit for the nanny state?

Obesity, it seems, has complex social causes. It is the symptom and emblem of a culture unique to the modern West. It may be that it is not possible to treat it simply as a medical problem. And yet, paradoxically, it may be that the human rights culture which prevails in precisely the same societies makes it impossible to approach in any other way.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.