[Guest post] A fat tax won’t help the nation get thinner

Joel Snape is features editor of Men’s Fitness and he thinks you should eat more steak

David Cameron doesn’t want you to get fat, and he’s losing patience with you. At the start of his term as PM, he was all for “nudging” you to get in better shape with healthcare incentives, but now, with more than half of adult men and 40 percent of women predicted to be obese by 2030, he’s told 5 News that he’s not ruling out a “fat tax” which would increase the prices of foods considered unhealthy.

If he did introduce one, he’d be following in the footsteps of Denmark, which last month introduced a surcharge on foods containing more than 2.3% saturated fat, and Hungary, where a so-called “hamburger tax” recently imposed levies on any products including certain levels of caffeine, sugar or salt. Norway already taxes sugar and chocolate, while Finland taxes soft drinks and ice cream. These measures have plenty of critics, and not all of them are simple lovers of cakes and energy drinks – detractors argue that these taxes hurt local businesses, discriminate against certain industries and disproportionately affect the poor, all while embodying nanny-statism at its worst. There’s also skepticism that the measures will actually stop anyone buying junk food. The biggest problem, though – and one which barely anybody seems to be mentioning – is that most of these laws are targeting the wrong thing.

Denmark’s tax is the most worrying. Studies linking saturated fat to obesity are almost non-existent, while several studies have seen test subjects lose weight faster on a high-fat diet than on the high-carb alternative. Governmental fear of saturated fats is actually largely based on supposed links to heart disease, which are themselves based on a 1984 study that actually wasn’t about saturated fat. Yes, there are more calories in a gram of fat than in a gram of carbohydrates, but to say that you’d eat them in the same quantities – or process them in the same way – is a huge oversimplication.

Gary Taubes, author of the groundbreaking Diet Delusion and its more digestible sequel Why We Get Fat, points out that the obesity epidemic coincided with a growing demonisation of fat in the ’80s. Taubes argues convincingly that what actually makes us fat are sugars and carbohydrates – especially refined carbohydrates – which trigger insulin release and lead to calories being preferentially stored in fat cells.  Taubes, incidentally, now eats red meat at almost every meal, cooks with butter, snacks on cheese, has lost “considerable weight” since starting his new eating regime and boasts cholesterol levels that are near-perfect for his age.

So part of the problem is that Denmark’s law will encourage the food industry to cut out fat and replace it with sugar –common in “low-fat” foods – while pushing up the prices of non-processed foods like butter and olive oil. But Hungary and Finland are equally guilty of knee-jerk lawmaking. Studies have shown that caffeine can enhance the intensity of a workout, and there’s speculation that it can aid in fat loss. Chocolate can’t all be lumped into one category – there’s considerable evidence that the dark variety is good for you in reasonable quantities.

Sugar is slightly less contentious – it’s almost universally agreed that it’s bad for us, and that we can do without it – but studies conflict on whether high salt consumption is good, bad, or does absolutely nothing at all. So is the answer to simply find the right/wrong combination of foods, hike up the prices and watch the nation slim down? In a word: no. We live in a country where it’s perfectly acceptable to spend £17 on a pizza. Making Coco Pops cost 5p more isn’t going to make anyone thinner.

The answer is education. If money’s to be spent, it should go on improving the quality of research in the area of nutrition – properly controlled studies are rare, and terrifyingly expensive to conduct – if only to confirm what Taubes suspects. Then the results should be broadcast to the nation. The Eatwell Plate, which is currently one-third occupied by “bread, rice, pasta and potatoes” and lumps high-sugar and high-fat together in the same category, should be revised. Proper nutrition – once it’s established – should be taught in schools.

Maybe P.E. lessons could occasionally cover the basics of exercise science or explain how to put together a workout, instead of always being a fat-kid-ostracising game of football. We could even start to put cigarette-packet style warnings on cans of Coke, if anybody really wants to. What we shouldn’t do is stigmatise people who are fat as lazy, uneducated or lacking willpower – or charge them more for food – when there’s still so little agreement on what actually makes us thin.

Text © Joel Snape, 2011; photo by ccaviness, used under Creative Commons

One thought on “[Guest post] A fat tax won’t help the nation get thinner

  1. I still believe a tax is definitely necessary to reduce the burden on the NHS, in the same way alcohol and cigarettes are targeted. But after reading this I think it should maybe be targeted at high sugar products, which would contribute to the NHS and help fund education on healthy eating

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