When you walk into a supermarket, what do you see? Walls of highly calorific, intensely processed food, tweaked by chemicals for maximum mouth feel and repeat appeal (addictiveness). This is what most people actually eat. Pure science on a plate. The food, in short, that is making the planet fat.
And next to this? Row upon row of low-fat, light, lean, diet, zero, low-carb, low-cal, sugar-free, “healthy” options, marketed to the very people made fat by the previous aisle and now desperate to lose weight. We think of obesity and dieting as polar opposites, but in fact, there is a deep, symbiotic relationship between the two.
In the UK, 60 percent of people are overweight, yet these people (and I include myself in this category, with a BMI — body mass index — of 27, average for the overweight British male) are not lazy and complacent about our condition, but ashamed and desperate to do something about it. Many of those classed as overweight are on a near-perpetual diet, and the same even goes for half of the British population, many of who do not even need to lose an ounce.
When obesity as a global health issue first came on the radar, the food industry sat up and took notice, but not exactly in the way you might imagine. Some of the world’s food giants opted to do something both extraordinary and stunningly obvious: They decided to make money from obesity by buying into the diet industry.
Weight Watchers, created by New York housewife Jean Nidetch in the early 1960s, was bought by Heinz in 1978, who in turn sold the company in 1999 to investment firm Artal for US$735 million. The next in line was Slimfast, a liquid meal replacement invented by chemist and entrepreneur Danny Abraham, which was bought in 2000 by Unilever, which also owns the Ben & Jerry brand and Wall’s sausages. The US diet phenomenon Jenny Craig was bought by Swiss multinational Nestle, which also sells chocolate and ice cream. In 2011, Nestle was listed in Fortune’s Global 500 as the world’s most profitable company.
These multinationals were easing carefully into a multibillion dollar weight loss market encompassing gyms, home fitness, fad diets and crash diets, and the kind of magazines that feature celebrities on yo-yo diets or pushing fitness DVDs promising an “all new you” in just three weeks.
You would think there might be a problem here: The food industry has one ostensible objective — and that is to sell food. However, by creating the ultimate oxymoron of diet food — something you eat to lose weight — it squared a seemingly impossible circle. And we bought it. Highly processed diet meals emerged, often with more sugar in them than the originals, but marketed for weight loss, and here is the key get-out clause, “as part of a calorie-controlled diet.” You can even buy a diet Black Forest gateau if you want.
So what you see when you walk into a supermarket today is the entire 360 degrees of obesity in a single glance. The whole panorama of fattening you up and slimming you down, owned by conglomerates which have analyzed every angle and moneymaking opportunity. The very food companies charged with making us fat in the first place are now also making money from the obesity epidemic.
How did this happen? Here are two alternative scenarios:
Scenario one — in the late 1970s, food companies made tasty new food. People started to get fat. By the 1990s, costs related to obesity were ballooning. Governments, health experts and, surprisingly, the food industry were brought in to consult on what was to be done. They agreed that the blame lay with the consumer — fat people needed to go on diets and exercise. The plan did not work. In the 21st century, people are getting fatter than ever.