The Intersectionality of Class and Obesity

Rosie McCann is a third year History student at KCL, who grew up in the North West of England. She is passionate about social mobility and representation in higher education. Rosie also serves as UK Politics & Brexit Current Events Reporter of The Clandestine.

[Featured Image: A wide variety of junkfood on a blue background]

Following fears that severe cases of COVID-19 and obesity are interconnected, the Government launched their ‘Better Health’ campaign to aid the country lose weight and protect the NHS. This scheme aims to ban TV and online adverts for ‘junk food’ before the watershed, ends “buy one get one free” offers on such foods, and instates calorie counts on restaurant menus. Obesity has been described as a ‘time bomb’ that increases one’s chances of becoming critically ill from coronavirus, and at the same time, drains the NHS of funding and resources. Despite the good intentions of the ‘Better Health’ campaign, it is clear that this government has failed to assess the causes of obesity. As the leading causes of obesity are emotional distress and economic inequality; this scheme is superficial and blind to the reasons why such a high proportion of Britain’s population is obese. 

‘Junk food’ is noted as being any food with a high content of fat, sugar and salt. This includes ready-meals, take-aways and sugary drinks and snacks. Given the mass produced and processed nature of these products, they are typically cheaper than a healthy meal or snack. A common retort to this claim is that, while a frozen pizza costs around £3, broccoli rarely exceeds the £1 mark. Surely, given the vegetable in this scenario has a lower cost, it is deduced that a healthy diet is a cheaper option. 

This is a reductionist and naive assessment.

While vegetables may be cheap, they do not constitute an entire meal. To make an entire meal that includes vegetables, time, skill, and frankly more ingredients are necessary. This meal thus becomes more expensive, and more time consuming. However, the frozen pizza will feed two children quickly, easily, and cheaply and is likely to be more calorie dense. Not to mention that fresh food goes off quicker, is likely to be wasted by fussy kids, and requires more preparation.It is easy to see why many families are opting for the unhealthy option. With the longest working week in Europe, and the lowest earners paying the highest proportion of their income in VAT, it is no wonder that poor health is so common amongst the poorest in society1 .

Perhaps, instead of making junk food more inaccessible and expensive for struggling families, the government should simply make it easier to eat healthily. For example, free cooking classes to teach working families how to utilise pulses, grains and vegetables to make a nutritional and cheap meal, or introducing subsidies on healthy meal options. Providing people with the tools to learn about healthy lifestyle choices and making nutritious food more accessible is the answer. Creating punishment policies for those on the poverty line is not.

Additionally, this scheme fails to provide any insight on how important good mental health is for a healthy lifestyle. With 6 million of the UK’s morbidly obese population also diagnosed with PTSD, or having experienced some kind of trauma, mental health funding and services have never been so crucial to ensuring a healthier population. The cause of overeating is usually rooted in unhappiness, boredom and a desire for comfort. Thus, the solution is to not make this habit more expensive, but instead work on curing it. This is as much of a mental health crisis as a public health one – especially given the disordered language that surrounds the ‘Better Health’ campaign. 

As someone with a binge eating disorder, counting calories and macros has helped me understand my body and nutritional intake, especially following a binge. However, for others with restrictive eating disorders, such as Anorexia and Bulimia, calorie counts on food menus and items will only feed into habits of obsessive calorie counting and hinder their recovery. Instead, more funding should be dedicated to dieticians, school programmes and therapy, to tackle excessive eating and lack of food knowledge from cradle to grave. 

It is also worth mentioning that unhealthiness and obesity aren’t synonymous. 63% of the UK’s population is obese, yet this is according to the BMI, which has been noted as a poor indicator of obesity. For example, under the BMI, incredibly healthy or ‘fit’ individuals are noted as being morbidly obese, given that muscle weighs more than fat. The BMI does not account for this, nor does it count for potential health conditions that may make losing weight hard, or increase the chances of weight gain. SSRI’s, or anti-depressants can increase the likelihood of weight gain, as can hormone therapy, the contraceptive pill, or simply long-term health conditions which make exercise difficult. From personal experience, I have always been classified as overweight or obese according to the BMI, despite being a healthy size 12. It can therefore be concluded that BMI is an outdated method of working out someone’s healthiness, and that obesity is not a one size fits all diagnosis. 

A disregard for how poverty, able-bodiedness and stable mental health impacts one’s weight and diet has informed this government policy. The Conservative government aims to control and regulate the food consumption of marginalised groups, rather than tackle the root cause head on. The repeated phrase that obesity costs the NHS £6 billion a year is not untrue, but it also fails to mention that this is merely 5% of the NHS’s overall budget, and therefore certainly not a ‘drain’. Improving the health of the nation should be approached in a cradle to grave manner, with continuous education, emotional and financial support. Any other approach is simply an un-nuanced attack on those who deserve support rather than punishment. 


1https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/news/britains-poorest-households-pay-more-their-income-tax-richest#:~:text=Council%20tax%20and%20VAT%20hit,VAT%20(5%25%20for%20rich)

https://www.healthpovertyaction.org/news-events/key-facts-poverty-and-poor-health/

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