headline for early January: four million people in the UK have diabetes.
There are 700 new diagnoses every day, the overwhelming majority (90 per cent) with type 2 diabetes, the variety associated with diet and inactivity.
In the last decade there has been a 65 per cent rise in the total number of diabetics.
By one reckoning, one in five British retirees is a sufferer. Diabetes is an expensive and complicated condition to treat: at the moment it costs the NHS £1 million an hour.
From the public health point of view, diabetes is an escalating disaster, on a scale that amounts to an existential threat to the NHS. As Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, says, ‘obesity is the new smoking.
The wrong turn in our diet is linked to how we eat as children – which means the way we feed children. The whole concept of ‘children’s food’, a relatively recent and Westernised one, is in Wilson’s analysis a big part of the problem. We have talked ourselves into thinking that children are inherently tricky and picky eaters, so we give them a diet skewed towards the crowd-pleasing SFS tastes. That food is easy to like, but has the unhappy side effect of giving us cravings for inherently unhealthy foods. The result is where we are today, with 61.7 per cent of the adult population overweight, including 25.6 per cent who are obese, and with both numbers rising yearly.
Wilson, however, has good news. It concerns the question of why we like wh
There are also competing theories on the extent to which our food learning is mediated by particular genes, hormones and neurotransmitters. But the fundamental insight that human food habits a learned behaviour is not the subject of scientific debate.
That’s a very positive development, because it means that we can relearn our food preferences, even in adulthood. Wilson talks about our ‘first-order food preferences’, the things we like, and our ‘second-order food preferences’, which are the things we want to like. Chocolate might be in the first category, watercress in the second. The science now shows that we can turn our second-order preferences into things we actually enjoy eating; we can turn wanting, which is about intent, into liking, which is about pleasure. We can train ourselves to want what’s good for us. Similarly, we can, by disciplining ourselves around our children, by patience, by encouragement, by rational use of small and varied portions, teach them to like the kind of food that is good for them, too. We can prevent ourselves and them from being bullied into a food culture that is skewed entirely towards SFS flavours.
If obesity is the new smoking, sugar is the new tobacco. We’re going to have to treat it the same way.
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