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Gargantuan guzzling


Henry I of England died in 1135, supposedly from a surfeit of lampreys, an eel-like fish. No-one knows for sure but it probably wasn't gluttony that did for the 67-year-old Henry, so much as poor hygiene and the stress of dealing with more or less continual rebellions. But the myth endures - he scoffed himself to death. Many of us are now following in his footsteps. Porcine predelictions are ubiquitous. It won't - it doesn't - end well.

The 1973 Italian-French movie La Grand Bouffe doesn’t get many screenings these days. Its 44-year-old cinematic qualities have dated, and the subject matter – four middle class men gather together for a weekend during which they eat themselves to death, while in the company of some prostitutes – is utterly beyond the pale. Well…not my pale but you get what I mean. I suspect it’s not so much the prostitutes that might cause offence today, as the gargantuan guzzling-to-death. I haven’t seen Monty Python’s 1983 movie The Meaning of Life recently on TV either, even though it won the Grand Prix at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. Can it be we are  all too delicate these days to watch the movie’s enormously fat Mr Creosote, who vomits powerfully and then tucks away a vast meal, before exploding on a wafer-thin mint?

Am I inventing it, or do I really see see many more fat people around than I used to?

In 2017 we have become adjusted to not daring to cause offence. Thus all manner of topics and episodes from life that once were fit for laughter are no longer. The banana-skin joke is today more likely to see a flurry of PTSD counsellors on the scene. The tubby, the fat, the porky…they once were jokes but are no more. Prader-Willi syndrome (PWS), a (currently incurable) genetic abnormality that means a person feels constantly hungry, isn’t that common. It’s estimated that it affects about one person in 30,000. The Fat Acceptance Movement has, rightly or wrongly, made it very difficult if not impossible to laugh at fat people. I wonder to what extent, therefore, this acceptance has encouraged people to just loosen their belts a little more than once was the case. Am I inventing it, or do I really see see many more fat people around than I used to?

According to UK government figures, globally there were in 2014 more than 1.9 billion overweight adults, 600 million of them obese. Which means 13% of the world is obese. The UK ranks no 8 out of 34 OECD countries for obesity; no surprises that the US tops the list. Last time I went to Disneyland in Florida I could hardly move, there were so many mobility scooter traffic jams. In the past three decades overweight and obesity levels in the UK have shot up by 72%. In the UK’s Birmingham more than 25% of the population are obese. No – it’s not me. There really are a lot more fat people around than there used to be.

There are may reasons why we have all got fatter, apart from the rather rare genetic explanation. The now notorious addition of high fructose corn syrup by US processed food makers to just about everything packaged is well documented, as is the link between obesity and poverty or, to use the preferred euphemism, ‘socieconomic status’. Processed food has got cheaper; people snack a lot more; there’s a tempting coffee-and-cakes bar on almost every street; and people who are overweight and happy with that won’t stand being laughed at today. Quite right too.

People were once embarrassed by their own fat; no longer

In movie terms, we’re much happier these days with Stand by Me, the terrific 1986 film in which, en passant, Davie ‘Lard-Ass’ Hogan, a huge boy who is bullied by everyone, goes in for a pie eating contest. The twist is that ‘Lard-Ass’ doesn’t try to win – he just eats so much that he is able to vomit over the audience, and thus exact a justifed revenge. How we laugh when he covers everyone with a vidid purple stream. But ‘Lard-Ass’ still remains disquietingly chunky.

All this fatness may be fine at the individual level. It’s certainly great for the manufacturers of ‘comfort-wear’. People were once embarrassed by their own fat; no longer. They once tried to do something about it – now they have outsourced the problem and someone else needs to do something about it. That someone else is, of course, the poor old NHS.

The Faculty of Public Health in the UK estimates that all obesity-linked diseases (diabetes, strokes, heart attacks et al) will cost the NHS by 2050 around £23 billion annually, up from some £17 billion in 2007. Indirect costs of obesity in 2007 were almost £16 billion; by 2050 they could be £50 billion. Obesity is the prime cause of diabetes 2. There are now four million people diagnosed with diabetes in the UK, up by 65% in the past decade, and around 24,000 people a year with diabetes – many of them presumably with diabetes 2 – die prematurely, or have a leg or foot amputated. It’s like a slow national suicide.

Not so much ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die’, as ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we get our gastric band’

No doubt there’s an actuary somewhere already doing a cost-benefit analysis of the numbers of premature deaths matched with the rising costs to the (already stretched) NHS, an entirely reasonable calculation that is sadly beyond my data-crunching capacity. I just have an itch, is all. The NHS does a lot more bariatric surgery today – usually putting in a gastric band to shrink the stomach of the incorrigible eater – than it used to. In 2003-2004 the bariatric surgery rate for England on the NHS was 1.1 per 100,000; in 2009-2010 it was twelve times bigger (no pun intended). In the private sector that operation costs around £6,000.

So we have the extreme irony of a strapped NHS spending millions – some estimates are around £40 million – on people who hitherto have been happily putting away the calories, but now don’t want to yet can’t stop, to save them from premature yet self-induced death. From an Olympian perspective this is absurd. Even funny. Not so much ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we die’, as ‘eat, drink, for tomorrow we get our gastric band’.

I speak from experience. The child of a vast and completely indolent mother, and a hard-working perpetually exhausted thin father, I recall regularly being sent out on a Saturday night on my bike to the local off licence, instructed by my mother to buy a half-pound bag of heavily salted peanuts. Once she had them she proceeded to munch them steadily until bed.

‘Treats’ were biscuits, cakes, chocolate, crisps – any junk food you care to name. Unsurprisingly I grew up with a liking for junk food. It’s an addiction as bad as any crackhead suffers. My mother, a very infrequent smoker of the occasional Du Maurier cigarette – a brand I thought so exotic – had a stroke at 75. My father – whose only ‘treat’ was a weekly ounce of Golden Virginia – lived till he was 85, and only a burst aortic artery laid him out. Laid out on the slab, I was surprised to find him a livid purple, until I realised that he was full of unconstrained blood.

“I’ve got a slow metabolism,” she always said. “That’s why I can’t lose weight.” Slow metabolism my arse

Of my sisters, two were overweight and one was appallingly obese for most of her life. Towards the end – a dismal affair of generalised blubber suffocating her struggling vital organs – she resembled a wheelchair-bound monster, whose neck had utterly disappeared. Like a warty-headed Dumbledore who had binged on Crunchie Bars. She was one of those people who bizarrely are never happier than when in hospital, or ‘under the doctor’. Perpetually ‘on a diet’ (yet sneaking crap food on the sly) the sight of her filled me with jaw-dropping horror, a living blob who had survived her whole life thanks to doctors and nurses staving off the inevitable implosion. “I’ve got a slow metabolism,” she always said. “That’s why I can’t lose weight.” Slow metabolism my arse.

I’d like to say that I am so socially conscious that I am determined not to get fat like my mother, just so I don’t put any more unnecessary costs on the NHS. But it’s nothing to do with that. It’s about a deep horror of becoming a heap of human wreckage. The idea that some poor medical sod would need to slice through inches of yellow fat just to get to the failing vital organ to save my life, is too revolting to contemplate.

At my sister’s funeral I tried to chat to her bereaved husband. “How are you coping?” I asked.

He shrugged and replied: “It’s a bit of a nuisance really. You see, they’re taking back the car.”

“What car?”

“Now she’s dead, we have to give back the car. It was specially kitted out so that we could get her wheelchair in and out. I’m thinking about getting a Dacia Duster though, they’re really cheap and seem pretty good.”