Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Monday 13 January 2014

Vital Statistics

(c) Matt Pritchett (The Daily Telegraph) 2006

In the high-and-far-off times when satellite television was so new and all, a bunch of people in offices looked at the healthy sales figures for the first few months and decided that the entire UK population would be sitting down to Sky TV within a decade.

Instead, after an initial surge, the take-up rate slowed dramatically, throwing their business strategy into chaos. While the gadget-minded, the sports-obsessed and the 'frequent flyers' immediately installed their heart's desire and settled down to marathon viewing sessions, a fair proportion of the population went about its business largely unmoved by the visual cornucopia on offer and steadfastly refused to buy.

Some, in fact, actively opposed the idea and do to this day; while Sky Arts won over a few die-hard snobs, there are still plenty of people out there who view satellite dishes in much the same way that a 13th century villager might regard the cross painted on his plague-stricken neighbour's door.

The advent of Freeview has rendered the matter essentially academic, but the same false logic now appears to be applied to the obesity 'time-bomb'. Those not-so-clever chaps crunching the numbers forgot to factor in the inevitable weight increase with age, so they have revised their figures amid much media fanfare and emotive language:
"We're now seven years on from the Foresight Report. Not only is the obesity situation in the UK not improving, but the doomsday scenario set out in that report [that half the UK population will be obese by 2050] might underestimate the true scale of the problem."
History and literature show that, except in times of famine, Britain's population has always included some people who are overweight, a few grossly so. Today's abundant grazing opportunities, combined with medical advances that have dramatically reduced child mortality among mothers in poor health, mean that the descendants of those people may well form a large proportion of those now giving cause for concern.

Whatever the reason for their state, whether nature or nurture, it's unlikely that the seriously overweight are distributed evenly throughout the population, however much the statisticians think they ought to be. While some individuals - and families - have piled on the pounds, most of us have for years had the same opportunities to eat ourselves to a standstill and have manifestly not done so.

Today's environment, with unprecedented access to cheap fast food and a sedentary lifestyle, may have contributed to some people gaining excessive weight, but does that really mean that the rest of us are bound to follow?

Update: this news story has been brilliantly satirised by Mark Wadsworth, while Longrider questions the motives of the National Obesity Forum.


  1. History and literature show that, except in times of famine or rationing, Britain's population has always included some people who are overweight, a few grossly so.

    Yes, all this is so, Macheath, sweetest but what has that to do with asteroids?

  2. Only recently my wife and I were standing in Grandson's primary school playground and we both noticed how few overweight kids there were.

    Yet quite a few of their parents are clearly overweight. These parents may well be controlling their child's diet more successfully than their own. Maybe the issue will peak due to such factors.

  3. JH, one has to do something in the the weeks when - unless there's a new discovery - nothing will pass nearer than 20 lunar distances.

    AKH, I wonder whether there is a cyclical factor at work; perhaps, after rationing (or other shortage), every instinct is telling parents to feed up their offspring - bonny baby contests, anyone? - and it takes several generations for the general population to become accustomed to plenty and revert to eating only what is needed.

  4. AKH, in the light of your observations, you may find this graph interesting:



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