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Telling people what to eat

18/09/14
Liz Barling
There’s a nervousness that has existed for many years about telling people what to eat.
Telling people what to eat

Arguably the last time that government ‘interfered’ in people’s diets was when they imposed rationing during the Second World War.

Rationing was an extreme solution to an extreme problem. Nevertheless, Britons benefited from a healthier diet than they had ever experienced before or indeed have since.

This laissez-faire approach to diets and public health has accompanied an epidemic of global obesity and diet related ill-health such as diabetes. Are the two linked? Many experts believe they are.

Participants in the June 2014 Business Forum heard from experts Philip Lymbery, Chief Executive of Compassion in World Farming, and Tom Sanders, Professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Kings College London about the advantages and pitfalls of ‘telling people what to eat’.

The lively discussion, which was held over a sustainably sourced meal at a celebrated London restaurant, was wide-ranging and insightful.

What I found particularly interesting was the fact that although governments are hugely reluctant to invite themselves into people’s kitchens, a lot of retailers are doing just that. However, their powerful influence – through marketing and promotion – isn’t necessarily in the best interests of their customers’ health.

One strand of the discussion at the Business Forum was around consumers. If the onus is on shoppers themselves to take responsibility for healthy and sustainable eating, can we expect them to make fully informed and rational choices? Who’s giving them the tools to do that?

The government and food retailers don’t always make it easy either, with the plethora of labels that inform us about the nutritional value, sustainability, animal welfare, method of transport, production and fair trade.

How consumers are expected to weigh up these different values and make the ‘right’ decision beats me!

Diet related illness linked to obesity and malnutrition is already at epidemic proportions. Add to that the very likely disruption of our global food systems by climate change, and I’d argue that governments won’t have any choice but to shift towards telling people what to eat.

Will we see rationing make a comeback? Who’s to say? But one thing’s for certain – we can’t carry on eating the way we are now.

Download the full report

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