Proof of the pudding
Who actually dictates our eating habits?
FOOD Ravenous How to Get Ourselves and Our Planet into Shape Henry Dimbleby and Jemima Lewis PROFILE, £16.99 One morning as he was getting up, Henry Dimbleby’s daughter asked him if he’d always been quite so chubby. It was, he admits, both “a bruising start to the day” and a tricky question to answer. “Maintaining a healthy weight”, for the co-founder of Leon restaurants turned food campaigner, “has always been a struggle”. And Dimbleby isn’t the only one. In fact, he says, 28% of us are clinically obese, which is startling when you compare that with just 1% of the population in 1950, an age when the planet too was in far better nick. It isn’t that we’re greedy, but we are not entirely blameless either. In Dimbleby’s words, it would be wrong to say that we “are powerless in the jaws of the machine”, but, as he shows, the machine is a formidable creation of supermarkets, food giants and fast-food chains. Ravenous, which is co-written by Dimbleby’s wife, the journalist Jemima Lewis, is a highly readable account of what needs to happen in order for us to both save the planet and fit into those old jeans again. Part of the problem is that the enemy is invisible. Most of us don’t even realise our eating habits are largely informed by a dystopian system we can’t see – one that produces, processes, markets and sells the food we eat. On a train heading for London, Dimbleby buys a “handmade” egg sandwich and turns it over to see that it contains 32 ingredients, including things most of us will have never heard of. When did you last put “diacetyl tartaric acid” in your shopping basket? Even natural-sounding ingredients, such as rapeseed oil, are often highly processed. In fact, highly processed foods make up 57% of our diet, a higher proportion than any other European country. The consequences are stark. Studies have shown, Dimbleby writes, that a “10% increase in the proportion of ultra-processed foods in a person’s diet is correlated with a 12% increase in cancers, a 21% increase in depressive symptoms, and a 12% increase in cardiovascular disease risk”. It is shocking to read that there are 3.3 million people in the UK “who live in an area where there are no shops selling fresh ingredients within 15 minutes by public transport”. In other words, those MPs who harp on about simply needing to make a nice vegetable broth have no understanding of the reality of living in a so-called food swamp, where chicken shops might be the only option. Those spicy wings, a product that’s very bad for people and very bad for the environment, are in a sense the denouement of Britain’s modern food story. Like most of us, agricultural land in this country is in a sickly state. Growing plants, Dimbleby writes, “produces around 12 times more calories per hectare than rearing meat. Yet 85% of UK farmland is used for feeding and rearing livestock.” The remedy, if we are to reduce the loss of wildlife across the countryside, is to free up land and improve habitat; Dimbleby isn’t calling for us to all go vegan but if “everyone in the UK reduced their intake of meat and dairy by one-third, that would free up around 20% of our farmland”. In 2019, Dimbleby was commissioned to write a food strategy for the nation. His report was lauded for its ambitious recommendations, from a sugar and salt tax to creating a map of British land use. But it is distressing to read in the final chapter of Ravenous that limited action has been taken. In the introduction to his book, Dimbleby promises to show us how the crisis can be averted. It delivers on that promise. It’s a fascinating book, but change requires the government to tackle “the machine”. Dimbleby has shown us the way, but we now need the government to show the will. To buy a copy for £14.95 go to guardianbookshop.com