Caterers can take lead in lean times

26 March 2004 by
Caterers can take lead in lean times

The obesity time bomb is ticking, and with every generation we're getting fatter. In the USA, obesity is creeping up on smoking as the number one preventable cause of death. At home, more than half of women and two-thirds of men are overweight or obese, leading to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoarthritis. Each year, these related problems lead to 18 million sick days and 30,000 deaths, and cost the nation £2b.

But who's to blame for these problems? Everyone, it seems, while tucking into another low-carbohydrate meal and wondering whether the Atkins diet is really safe, wants a scapegoat. "It's not our fault we're fat. It's the fast-food operators and caterers who are to blame, for feeding us things that are bad for us. It's the advertisers who make their products look irresistible, particularly during prime-time television or children's programmes. It's changing lifestyles, where we're all so obsessed with Playstations, the internet or Gameboys that we slouch in front of these devices rather than take regular exercise. It's the Government's fault, for not putting enough emphasis on food in the national curriculum. It's parents who resort to feeding their children calorific snacks. It's… It's…"

Well, it's easy to point the finger, but the reality in the weight-management dilemma is that there's no one culprit. What is clear is that it's wrong to place all the blame at the door of the caterer. Going out to eat is, by definition, a pleasurable experience, a chance for customers to break the mould every so often, and maybe eat dishes that they wouldn't eat at home. After all, no one is force-feeding them - it boils down to choice.

At the root of making sensible choices is education. Most people know which foods are good or bad for them, and that more exercise and sensible eating will lead to longer-term weight loss, and it's important that educators continue to reiterate these themes. But against this, individuals have to take some responsibility for their own actions. We don't (yet) live in a world where, if you stick your finger in a fire and get burned, it's the fault of the person who lit it.

Many caterers are already helping with this education process voluntarily, by indicating more clearly the make-up of their dishes through easy-to-understand symbols, and this is to be applauded. This is particularly important where customers are a captive audience, such as children in school or patients in hospitals.

Where external intervention would be welcomed would be in relation to vulnerable age groups, such as banning advertising of fast food during children's television programming.

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