Atthe Newarke Houses Museum in Leicester, England hangs a portrait of Britain’s first obese man, painted in 1806. Daniel Lambert weighed 335kg and was considered a medical oddity. Too heavy to work, Lambert came up with an ingenious idea: he would charge people a shilling to see him. Lambert made a fortune, and his portrait shows him at the end of his life: affluent and respected.
Two hundred years on, I’m in a bariatric ambulance (an alternative term for obese, favored by the medical world because it’s less shaming to patients) investigating why the UK is in the midst of an obesity crisis. The crew pick up a dozen Daniel Lamberts every week. Three-hundred and-thirty-five-kg is nothing special, it’s at the lower end of the weight spectrum, with only the 500kg patients worthy of mention when a shift finishes. As well as the ambulance, there’s a convoy of support vehicles including a winch to lift patients on to a reinforced stretcher. In extreme cases, the cost of removing a patient to hospital can be up to US$155,000, as seen in the recent case of 400kg teenager Georgia Davis.
But these people are not where the heartland of the obesity crisis lies. On average, in the UK, Britons are all — every man, woman and child -— 19kg heavier than they were in the mid-1960s. They haven’t noticed it happening, but this glacial shift has been mapped by bigger car seats, swimming cubicles, XL trousers dropped to L (L dropped to M). An elasticated nation with an ever-expanding sense of normality.
Why are Britons so fat? They have not become greedier as a race. They are not, contrary to popular wisdom, less active — a 12-year study, which began in 2000 at Plymouth hospital in southwest England, measured children’s physical activity and found it the same as 50 years ago. But something has changed, and that something is very simple. It’s the food Britons eat. More specifically, the sheer amount of sugar in that food.
The story begins in 1971. Former US president Richard Nixon was facing re-election. The Vietnam war was threatening his popularity at home, but just as big an issue with voters was the soaring cost of food. If Nixon was to survive, he needed food prices to go down, and that required getting a very powerful lobby on board — the farmers. Nixon appointed Earl Butz, an academic from the farming heartland of Indiana, to broker a compromise. Butz, an agriculture expert, had a radical plan that would transform the food we eat, and in doing so, the shape of the human race.
Butz pushed farmers into a new, industrial scale of production, and into farming one crop in particular: corn. US cattle were fattened by the immense increases in corn production. Burgers became bigger. Fries, fried in corn oil, became fattier. Corn became the engine for the massive surge in the quantities of cheaper food being supplied to American supermarkets. As a result of Butz’s free-market reforms, American farmers, almost overnight, went from parochial small-holders to multimillionaire businessmen with a global market.
By the mid-1970s, there was a surplus of corn. Butz flew to Japan to look into a scientific innovation that would change everything: the mass development of high fructose corn syrup, or glucose-fructose syrup as it’s often referred to in the UK, a highly sweet, gloppy syrup, produced from surplus corn, that was also incredibly cheap. High fructose corn syrup was soon pumped into every conceivable food: pizzas, coleslaw, meat. It provided that “just baked” sheen on bread and cakes, made everything sweeter, and extended shelf life from days to years. In Britain, the food on our plates became pure science — each processed milligram tweaked and sweetened for maximum palatability. And the general public was clueless that these changes were taking place.