Diet is political

I can tell that you are rolling your eyes already, but bear with me. This is not an article about being vegan or animal rights, although those are interesting topics of discussion. This is also not an article about the fact that women's diets are surveyed and commented on more than men's, although this is clearly a political issue. This is an article about the way we talk about diet and what assumptions underpin these discussions.

Diet has a lot in common with politics; there are competing, sometimes radically different, ideologies fighting for dominance. What you eat says a lot about how you view yourself and the rest of the world. Not caring about diet is itself a statement about diet.

The people who hold the political opinion that we would be better off if we raised or lowered taxes want their views to be more widely adopted. Similarly people who endorse one diet or another have an agenda, an opinion they think would improve humanity if it were more widely adopted.

People who endorse one diet or another wish to alter the behaviour of others to help them and to help all of society, which in itself is noble. However there is an air of judgement when we talk about other people's food that is often cloaked by claiming that we want to help them. We do not make the same judgements when talking about other aspects of a person's behaviour, or health. Diet seems to be special in this regard. It is seen as more socially acceptable to comment on someone's diet than their appearance or body odour.

There is an expressly political aspect to the way we talk about diet. This arises when we talk about the obese using too much of the NHS’s resources. Using more than your fair share of health resources is seen as very bad in an age when we have a limited NHS - mainly due to Tory austerity. This overlooks the fact that not everyone is issued with the same set amount of health care, some people will need more and some will need less and the taxes of the people who need less will pay for the healthcare of the people who need more. This is the only fair way to run a health service. Despite this we still talk about the obese selfishly using more of the NHS than they are entitled to and there is even talk of the obese people being denied basic rights of free healthcare.

The way we talk about the obese as a society is similar to the way we talk about benefit claimants. Most people agree with the idea of benefits but a lot of people say that those on benefits are taking more than they deserve because of lifestyle choices. The same air of judgement is used in both cases. We talk of unemployment as if it is a lifestyle choice, much the same way we talk about obesity as if it is a lifestyle choice. Underpinning both these beliefs is the cold view that other people are lazy and society should not allow laziness to go unpunished.

If you hold this view that a lifestyle choice has entitled someone else to a greater share of society's scarce resources then this changes how you view other people’s behaviour. It changes other people's personal choices into social issues, which is what makes people feel entitled to comment someone else's diet. Talking about someone’s body odour is rude, but talking about someone’s diet is good for all of society because it could prevent someone from getting more of their fair share of scarce resources.

This is the language of the deserving and undeserving poor, and is linked in the mind of those who believe that bad diet and unemployment are solely the preserve of lazy poor people. People with this opinion generally do not mind rich obese people, it is poor obese people they object to. Incidentally unemployment is seen as a lifestyle choice based around laziness whereas wealth is not seen as a different lifestyle choice but a superior state of being, which we should all aspire too. This is the same way we talk about being thin and healthy.

This view is based on a classist assumptions that poor people are lazy and do not look after themselves. They sit around, not working, drinking lager, eating badly and then expect all this to be paid for by other people's hard work. In reality most benefits are claimed by people with jobs but on low wages. People who work hard jobs and are raising a family on a low income do not always have the time and the money to eat well. Bad diet and benefits are often not a factor of being lazy but of working hard and being paid little money.

Rather than saying that the poor should change their behaviour, we need to change their circumstances through better wages and working conditions. It is not enough for middle class people to say "I eat well so what is the problem?" This is based on the assumptions that poor people are lazy and it refuses to acknowledge the difficult circumstances other people face. It implies that poor people need to be forced to change, for the good of themselves, whereas in reality society needs to change to better accommodate the needs of the less well off.

Telling someone what you think their diet should be assumes that everyone else is in control of their own lives the way that a wealthy middle class person is. A lot of people are not, they are dependent on irregular work, they depend on benefits due to their low wages and increasingly they are dependent on the charity of others because of benefit cuts. If we want to make a positive difference in the lives of the less well off, and thus the health of the nation, then we need higher wages, more benefits and greater taxes on the well off to pay for all of this.

This is not an argument I hear people making very often, an argument for more government and more welfare, but it is the best solution to the problems caused by people not being on control of their lives – problems like obesity.

If, when we talk about other people’s diet, we really have their best interests at heart then we need to make an argument for better living standards and not just changing an individual's behaviour. Diet is political and my politics is about helping the less well-off and not just assuming they are lazy.