Health minister: poor people are obese


Anna Soubry

Health Minister, Anna Soubry, will have done little to enhance the caring reputation of the Conservatives, after she said you can spot poor people because they are more likely to be fat.

So why did she say this, and is she shockingly out-of-touch, or is she right?

Her argument

Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, made her comments to the Daily Telegraph. She said that when she was growing up you could tell who was poor at school because they were so skinny. Now she says it's "deeply ironic" that these children tend to be the fat ones in the classroom.

She told the newspaper: "When I go to my constituency, in fact when I walk around, you can almost now tell somebody's background by their weight," she said. "Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that's where the propensity lies."

She identified the problems as bad manners in poor households where there is a culture of "TV dinners" which has meant children no longer eat proper dinners around a dining room table. She added that as junk food tends to be cheap parents think this is the solution to feeding their children.

She had told a conference that she was calling on manufacturers to voluntarily cut the fat, sugar and salt in food or that she would launch legislation in order to force them to do so.

However, she told the newspaper that parents had a responsibility to feed their children healthily too, and to ditch TV dinners for structure and routine of proper meals around a proper dining room table.

So is she right?

Department of Health statistics would indicate that there's an element of truth to what she is saying. Some 24% of the poorest 11-year-olds in England are obese - compared to 14% of the wealthiest. The Office for National Statistics has confirmed the link, especially for children.

However, the relationship between poverty and obesity is a strange one. The Department's figures show that the groups in society which are least likely to be obese are poor men and rich women. Meanwhile, the Economic and Social Research Council has concluded that a focus on learning instead of play and the prevalence of car ownership means that children in the wealthiest families are likely to be increasingly obese too.


The rate of obesity among poorer children is not simply the result of poor parenting and a lack of structure, it is a combination of a host of factors.

First, junk food is cheap. Of course you could have a healthy home-made organic soup for the price of a kebab, but it wouldn't fill you up - and it wouldn't satisfy your family. On a calorie-per-penny basis, a kebab is going to do the job far more effectively. In poorer families, obesity isn't your main concern... it's hunger.

A study presented to the American Council on Consumer Interests confirmed that this is the reason why women and children of poorer families fill up on fat-laden, cheap food.

The reason why this is different to the days when Soubry was growing up was that in the interim globalization has made fats cheaper.

Second, poorer areas tend to have more junk food outlets and fewer sources of cheap healthy food. It's ironic that you're going to pay more for fruit and vegetables somewhere more deprived than in an affluent area.

Third, poverty and obesity are both often symptoms of the same things. People are not in a position to make positive choices about their life: they are on benefits, in a property that has been allocated to them, leading a life they never wanted, and eating the foods they find easiest.

And fourth, when income is uncertain, people are likely to make different nutritional decisions. If this could be your last decent meal for a while, you're going to make the most of it.


These factors mean that it isn't just a question of coercing parents into feeding the kids fruit, and demanding they sit at a table in order to do so, it's a case of solving these problems.

Parents need to be informed and helped so that they know how to buy and cook healthy and filling food for less. A study for the American Society for Clinical Nutrition by Adam Drewnowski and SE Specter found that education had a far bigger impact on the quality of diet than income did.

Meanwhile, the cost of filling, tasty and healthy alternatives needs to be subsidised in poorer areas, so it becomes the natural and sensible choice for anyone on a budget.

Without these changes, Soubry banging on about TV dinners isn't going to do the slightest bit of good.

But what do you think? Let us know in the comments.

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