She believes that obesity is the result of environmental and genetic factors, rather than willpower, and that ascribing blame pushes the overweight towards comfort eating and makes them harder to ‘treat’.
Some Conservative MPs are opposed, claiming that people had to take responsibility for their own weight. These include Will Quince, who reports that he used to be 20 stone before he got a grip.
Both sides are partly right – which means that Jebb’s call for absolution is wrong.
She is certainly correct to highlight the underlying genetic differences between us which help to define our relationship with food. Whether it be greater appetite or a slower metabolism, it is not the case to imagine that we are all born on the same baseline and our eventual body shape stems purely from choice.
But Jebb goes too far when she tries to lift the entire burden of our health from the individual.
Yes, the modern Western world – with the decline of manual labour and its unparalleled availability of tasty food – poses challenges, and our genes play a role in determining where our personal baseline is.
But none of that means that self-discipline cannot, and should not, make a big difference.
Speaking as somebody who is overweight and has made some progress towards changing that, this line in particular leapt out at me: “Professor Jebb says that she has rarely met an obese person who did not badly want to lose weight, and that making them feel bad about their failure tends only to exacerbate it.”
Take it from someone intimately familiar with the difference: there’s wanting something, and there’s wanting it.
I spent many fat years “wanting” to lose weight, imagining often the physical and social benefits of being fitter. I would sometimes launch myself into some or other new health regime, unfalteringly supported by friends and family – whom I let down, time after time, by covertly reverting to old behaviour.
So long as the pressure to lose weight was external – parental pressure, societal expectations – I made no progress.
In my view, Jebb is correct to argue that stigma is largely another counter-productive external pressure. This should lead her to question the fact that so many fat people tell her they want to be thin.
Is it all evidence of powerlessness – or just people driven by external pressure to express the socially acceptable preference? It would take a lot of courage – and self-awareness – to admit to preferring the immediate pleasures of life to the rigours of keeping fit, even to oneself.
If the stigma attached to obesity did decline, is it difficult to imagine the proportion of fat people telling Jebb they “badly want” to be thin declining too?
My own unhappy pattern didn’t change until I made a positive decision to change for my own sake, and found a manageable way to change my habits that worked for me.
That is to say, I decided that I actually wanted the health benefits more than the immediate pleasures, rather than feeling like I ought to want them.
But I had to find my solution, and find the strength to go through with it, in myself. Without that no amount of external assistance will do any good.
Is it difficult? Of course it is. Are there setbacks? Yup. That’s how it is when you’re battling years of engrained behaviour and, who knows, perhaps some genetic predisposition towards being a “person of size”.
And right up until they do it, everybody is someone who “can’t” do it. Because if they could they definitely would have. Absolutely. They tried their best. Right?
Frankly, I can think of few things that would have made it harder to reach the point where I started getting a grip than being told that none of it was my fault. Mental slaps to the face like this one did me more good than any volume of sympathy.
There’s a word for behaviour where people who want what’s best for you – be it loved ones or well-meaning officials – seek to comfort you by acting as if you’re powerless in the face of your problems. It’s called enabling.
Yes, there are factors at play that are beyond your control. So what? Aside from a few actual medical conditions, how many instances are there where some self-belief and self-discipline – ‘willpower’ – wouldn’t help? Even if it’s only ten per cent of someone’s problem, that’s ten per cent they can fix.
Blame is a corollary of responsibility, and responsibility is empowering and motivating. Genuinely believing that you can achieve the change you want makes it much easier to do it. Powerlessness, essential to blamelessness, is a false and disabling comfort.
Apart from undermining the capacity of fat people to tackle their problems, this presumption of powerlessness also has troubling implications for broader policy.
As I have argued previously, the transformation of the social safety net into the social straightjacket seems in no small part underpinned by an idea that many adults are somehow incapable of making informed decisions, and that deviation from the preferred outcomes of public health advocates is evidence not of different preferences, but of a strange form of mental incapacity .
It is right that we tackle prejudice, based on a simplistic understanding of a complicated problem, which unfairly penalises and stigmatises people, not least because being nasty to people about their weight doesn’t fix anything.
But unless they rightly belong in a nursery or an asylum, the Government must respect the fat citizens of Britain enough to afford them their share of the responsibility – and thus, if it is sought, the ‘blame’ – for their condition.