BBC Radio Five Live were crusading again last week, their plan of campaign once more heavily reliant upon taking a lazy sound-bite and stimulating a heated debate around it. This time, the sound-bite was a distinctly unprofessorial not to say yobbish statement by Professor Craig Currie of Cardiff University, who has given it as his august opinion that we in the UK are "a nation of lazy porkers."
I should make it clear from the outset that I am something of a porker myself though not, I hope, a lazy one. I also suffer from Type II Diabetes, a condition occurring typically with old age but also probable in earlier years where weight is a factor influencing health. And yet as a younger man, I was extremely active and sporty - so the question arises: what other factors are at play?
I've given this a lot of thought, and I believe that as a nation we have failed to address this public health issue in a number of important respects. In a nutshell, I blame the parents - but also educational institutions for their control-freak attitude to school dinners and successive governments who have taken an alarmingly short-term and complacent approach to investment in measures to preserve the fitness and health of the population.
Let's look at parents first. How many times have you heard of a 1960's mum or dad, themselves brought up in an atmosphere of post-war austerity, telling their already full-up offspring "Clean your plate now - I won't have you wasting good wholesome food. That would feed a family for two weeks in Biafra." That's what I used to hear as a kid, and it was considered sound child psychology. I even relayed a watered-down version of it to my own child. But this one phrase, or variants of it, can be held responsible for a pattern being set in childhood whereby many people feel actual guilt if they're in danger of leaving food uneaten on a plate.
At my primary school, those of more delicate appetites were always in danger of being sent to "stand at the wall" in the big dining room when the dreaded school dinners were being served. Leaving food on your plate was a disciplinary issue, and offenders were subjected to this diluted form of public humiliation. Looking back, it seems barbaric - a kind of child abuse. And all the time, the insidious process of habit-formation was going on with young bodies and developing digestive systems being routinely overstuffed as those plates got laboriously, reluctantly cleared. It was a mental process as well as a physical one - the feeling of guilt at any waste was ingrained early. Even now, in restaurants, we of a certain age make the old joke: finish up now, or you'll get stood at the wall. It's the product of misguided brainwashing 50 years ago, by parents, by teachers, by the formidable "dinner ladies".
So the errant notions of childhood nutrition, arising out of a historical "rationing" culture that spawned the baby boomers, may be one factor that is now reaping an unwelcome harvest in the proliferation of Type II Diabetes in younger age-groups such as the 40-somethings. What else might be at play? Hand-in-hand with the vexed issue of nutrition goes the equally thorny one of exercise. When I was a child, most recreation was outdoors, and nearly every patch of public land had its games of football going on whenever the players weren't required in the classroom or at home. It was jumpers for goalposts over the length and breadth of the country, and kids ran and ran after a ball, or whatever other sporting object, and they were lean and fit as a result.
All that started to change with the advent of videos and computer games and, latterly, the internet. Each advance of technology has had the effect of dragging the youngsters indoors to become fat and pasty as they pursued their virtual preoccupations. It was a clear signal for the authorities to do something, something urgent and effective, to promote exercise and the outdoors as essential to health and development. Investment was needed in exercise facilities, and the crucial importance of this needed to become a much more up-front feature of the national curriculum. So what have our various political persuasions of government done? Failed, utterly, that's what. Cut back on investment. Sold off playing fields. Allowed the private sector to hire out exercise facilities at a premium price to make a fat profit and cause a problem of fat people who can't afford to get fit. This failure to invest is a classic example of the wisdom of "A stitch in time saves nine". Now, the government is wailing and gnashing its teeth at the cost to the NHS of this Diabetes explosion, and other health issues that seem set fair to bankrupt our health service. It's a bit like a householder bemoaning a £300 plumbers' bill which has come about because they failed to invest £2.50 in lagging the pipes. Just consider the massive folly of what has happened. Selling off the playing fields, and now we're a nation of lazy porkers. Flogging exercise facilities and then pointing the finger at the victims of obesity-related illness is comparable to raffling off the lifeboats on the Titanic, and then blaming the iceberg for the death toll.
If we're to reverse this helter-skelter decline in the nation's health, we need to stop whinging and shouting "Why, oh why" from the rooftops, and actually DO something. Investment, investment, investment is the way forward. If it's possible to spend a pound on exercise and thereby save a fiver later on in healthcare costs - and it IS - then that is the road we must go down, and on a macro scale. Exercise facilities must be made available, they must be made attractive and they must be made cheap or free. Public awareness must be raised. Full-time posts must be established for professionals who will have the responsibility of changing lifestyles and encouraging the nation to get off its backside and do something. That will create jobs, it will have a positive effect on the health of many who simply can't afford to take advantage of what's currently on offer and that in turn would have an incalculable effect on the mental health of the population, which right now is crying out for a good healthy kick of endorphins. The cost of all this? Vast. Really, humoungously enormous. But the benefits down the line, the savings to be made by the nipping in the bud of all these dire health issues, will be incalculably greater still. That's the whole point of investment - you grit your teeth and pay up, hoping for a positive return later. The return on billions spent now though should be many more billions, possibly trillions saved in the future. This is an investment we can't afford NOT to make.
Just as we now look back at the sixties and remember the influence of our parents, products of late-forties austerity, so in fifty years time our descendants might look back on the current austerity-obsession, shake their heads sadly, and wonder what might have been if we'd only shown the foresight to invest in the future, and to educate our population about the wisdom of staying as fit as possible for as long as possible. At the moment, with our short-sighted insistence on short-term savings we're storing up trouble in the shape of a vast medical bill which will come due when our next generation grows up flabby and unhealthy, and starts keeling over in rows from the effects of cardiac disease, diabetes, strokes, and other fat-related nasties. We simply have to pay a few bob to lag those pipes now, if we're to have any real hope of avoiding that gargantuan plumbing bill in the future. Take it from a concerned porker - a stitch in time really does save nine.