No this really is not “the healthy one”

Today’s Guardian has a column by George Monbiot discussing the issue of obesity in modern England, that I think fundamentally misunderstands the causes of obesity and paints a dangerously rosy picture of Britain’s dietary situation. The column was spurred by a picture of a Brighton Beach in 1976, in which everyone was thin, and a subsequent debate on social media about the causes of the changes in British rates of overweight and obesity in the succeeding half a decade. Monbiot’s column dismisses the possibility that the growth in obesity could be caused by an increase in the amount we eat, by a reduction in the amount of physical activity, or by a change in rates of manual labour. He seems to finish the column by suggesting it is all the food industry’s fault, but having dismissed the idea that the food industry has convinced us to eat more, he is left with the idea that the real cause of obesity is changes in the patterns of what we eat – from complex carbohydrates and proteins to sugar. This is a bugbear of certain anti-obesity campaigners, and it’s wrong, as is the idea that obesity is all about willpower, which Monbiot also attacks. The problem here though is that Monbiot misunderstands the statistics badly, and as a result dismisses the obvious possibility that British people eat too much. He commits two mistakes in his article: first he misunderstands the statistics on British food consumption, and secondly he misunderstands the difference between a rate and a budget, which is ironic given he understands these things perfectly well when he comments on global warming. Let’s consider each of these issues in turn.

Misreading the statistics

Admirably, Monbiot digs up some stats from 1976 and compares them with statistics from 2018, and comments:

So here’s the first big surprise: we ate more in 1976. According to government figures, we currently consume an average of 2,130 kilocalories a day, a figure that appears to include sweets and alcohol. But in 1976, we consumed 2,280 kcal excluding alcohol and sweets, or 2,590 kcal when they’re included. I have found no reason to disbelieve the figures.

This is wrong. Using the 1976 data, Monbiot appears to be referring to Table 20 on page 77, which indicates a yearly average of 2280 kCal. But this is the average per household member, and does not account for whether or not a household member is a child. If we refer to Table 24 on page 87, we find that a single adult in 1976 ate an average of 2670 kCal; similar figures apply for two adult households with no children (2610 kCal). Using the more recent data Monbiot links to, we can see that he got his 2,130 kCal from the file of “Household and Eating Out Nutrient Intakes”. But if we use the file “HC – Household nutrient intakes” and look at 2016/17 for households with one adult and no children, we find 2291 kCal, and about 2400 as recently as 10 years ago. These are large differences when they accrue over years.

This is further compounded by the age issue. When we look at individual intake we need to consider how old the family members are. If an average individual intake is 2590 kCal in 1976 including alcohol and sweets, as Monbiot suggests, we need to rebalance it for adults and children. In a household with three people we have 7700 kCal, which if the child is eating 1500 kCal means that the adults are eating close to 3100 kCal each. That’s too much food for everyone in the house, even using the ridiculously excessive nutrient standards provided by the ONS.  It’s also worth remembering that the age of adults in 1976 was on average much younger than now, and an intake of 2590 might be okay for a young adult but it’s not okay for a 40-plus adult, of which there are many more now than there were then. This affects obesity statistics.

Finally it’s also worth remembering that obesity is not evenly distributed, and an average intake of 2100 kCal could correspond to an average of 2500 in the poorest 20% of the population (where obesity is common) and 1700 kCal in the richest, which is older and thinner. An evenly distributed 2100 kCal will lead to zero obesity over the whole population, but an unevenly distributed 2100 kCal will not. It’s important to look carefully at the variation in the datasets before deciding the average is okay.

Misunderstanding budgets and rates

Let’s consider the 2590 kCal that Monbiot finds as the average intake of adults in 1976, including alcohol and sweets. This is likely wrong, and the average is probably more like 3000 kCal including alcohol and sweets, but let’s go with it for now. Monbiot is looking to see what has changed in our diet over the past 40 years to lead to current rates of obesity, because he is looking for a change in the rate of consumption. But he doesn’t consider that all humans have a budget, and that a small excess of that budget over a long period is what drives obesity. The reality is that today’s obesity rates do not reflect today’s consumption rates, but the steady pattern of consumption over the past 40 years. What made a 55 year old obese today is what they ate in 1976 – when they were 15 – not what the average person eats today. So rather than saying “we eat less today than we did 40 years ago so that can’t be the cause of obesity”, what really matters is what people have been eating for the past 40 years. And the stats Monbiot uses suggest that women, at least, have been eating too much – a healthy adult woman should eat about 2100 kCal, and if the average is 2590 then a woman in 1976 has been at or above her energy intake every year for the past 40 years. It doesn’t matter that a woman’s intake declined to 2100 kCal in 2016, because she has been eating too much for the past 35 years anyway. It’s this budget, not changes over time, which determine the obesity rate now, and Monbiot is wrong to argue that it’s not overeating that has caused the obesity epidemic. Unless he accepts that a woman can eat 2590 kCal every year for 40 years and stay thin, he needs to accept that the problem of obesity is one of British food culture over half a century.

What this means for obesity policy

Somewhat disappointingly and unusually for a Monbiot article, there are no sensible policy prescriptions at the end except “stop shaming fat people.” This isn’t very helpful, and neither is it helpful to dismiss overeating as a cause, since everyone in public health knows that overeating is the cause of obesity. For example, Public Health for England wants to reduce British calorie intake, and the figures on why are disturbing reading. Reducing calorie intake doesn’t require shaming fat people but it does require acknowledgement that British people eat too much. This comes down not to individual willpower but to the food environment in which we all make choices about what to eat. The simplest way, for example, to reduce the amount that people eat is not to give them too much food. But there is simply no way in Britain that you can eat out or buy packaged food products without buying too much food. It is patently obvious that British restaurants serve too much food, that British supermarkets sell food in packages that are too large, and that as a result the only way for British people not to eat too much is through constant acts of will – leaving half the food you paid for, buying only fresh food in small amounts every day (which is only possible in certain wealthy inner city suburbs), and carefully controlling where, when and how you eat. This is possible but it requires either that you move in a very wealthy cultural circle where the environment supports this kind of thing, or that you personally exert constant control over your life. And that latter choice will inevitably end in failure, because constantly controlling every aspect of your food intake in opposition to the environment where you purchase, prepare and consume food is very very difficult.

When you live in Japan you live in a different food environment, which encourages small serving sizes, fresh and raw foods, and low fat and low sugar foods. In Japan you live in a food environment where you are always close to a small local supermarket with convenient opening hours and fresh foods, and where convenience stores sell healthy food in small serving sizes. This means that you can choose to buy small amounts of fresh food as and when you need them, and avoid buying in bulk in a pattern that encourages over consumption. When your food choices fail (for example you have to eat out, or buy junk food) you will have access to a small, healthy serving. If you are a woman you will likely have access to a “woman’s size” or “princess size” that means you can eat the smaller calorific food that your smaller calorific requirements suggest is wisest. It is easy to be thin in Japan, and so most people are thin. Overeating in Japan really genuinely is a choice that you have to choose to make, rather than the default setting. This difference in food environment is simple, obvious and especially noticeable when (as I just did) you hop on a plane to the UK and suddenly find yourself confronted with double helpings of everything, and super markets where everything is “family sized”. The change of food environment forces you to eat more. It’s as simple as that.

What Britain needs is a change in the food environment. And achieving a change in food environment requires first of all recognizing that British people eat too much, and have been eating too much for way too long. Monbiot’s article is an exercise in denialism of that simple fact, and he should change it or retract it.

OHMIGOD it ate the salmon!

It was the salmon mousse!

Tonight I was having dinner at kushi no kura in Shinjuku with a friend, and we noticed the mysterious oddity of shinshu salmon on the menu. For those of you unfamiliar with the vagaries of Japanese food culture [1], shinshu is an area of inland Japan roughly encompassing the Prefecture of Nagano, and its snowy mountains. I have previously visited Matsumoto in the shinshu region, and reported on the Kaichi school, an interesting museum about Japanese education, but I don’t have any particular sense of what does or does not constitute food from the region, but I naturally assumed it would be sansai,  vegetables from the mountains.

So my friend and I were a little confused by shinshu salmon. How can a mountainous inland region have salmon? That doesn’t make any sense! Looking around the restaurant we saw a poster for chicken from the area, and for the salmon, with a picture of … a salmon. Are they laying claim to fish that swim to shinshu from the sea? And surely they can’t do that in January, those salmon rock up in July or something. What’s going on?

Naturally I googled it, and discovered that shinshu salmon has its own webpage (in Japanese) and is basically a genetically engineered food. It is bred from rainbow trout and brown trout, which when combined produce a sterile offspring called shinshu salmon that is apparently great in a ceasar salad (you may doubt; I know enough about how good Japanese chefs are to recognize the genius of this idea). This fish has been around for 10 years or so, and is a kind of famous food of the shinshu area. It has its own FAQ, which features a young woman asking a much older scientist questions about his invention (Frankenstein would have gotten the same treatment if he’d been invented by a Japanese dude). The second question – which the woman, who is wearing an apron to indicate she is a serious housewife, asks while reading a very serious book – is “since it’s artificial life does it risk damage to the natural environment?” to which of course the answer is no since it’s sterile. What could possibly go wrong?!

This is an example of how Japanese people have a very different attitude towards science to westerners. They’re concerned about the environment, much more so I think than westerners, so they check in on that, but they just aren’t able to get mystical about scientific risk, and they really aren’t concerned about GMOs. What restaurant in the west would broadcast that it has genetically modified meat on the menu? It’s the kind of thing that you need to slip by your customers in the west whereas in Japan it’s a selling point. Japanese people are in general very concerned about global warming, the health of bees, pollution and recycling, rubbish rules here are very strict, and things that might affect the environment are taken very seriously – but there is no magical thinking about genetics. OH! Someone designed a new fish! Let’s eat it! It’s as if, if someone could convince a kangaroo to fuck a whale, there’d be a restaurant in Tokyo selling Kangawhale[1] (deliciously cooked no doubt). I think this also explains Japanese peoples’ much more sanguine approach to nuclear power; they’re more comfortable with scientific assessments of risk than westerners are.

This isn’t to say there aren’t anti-GMO folks in Japan, there are (I live in a suburb that is probably over-represented in this regard), but I think it doesn’t have the same salience as it does in the west. Which is interesting, because Japan has a very protected rice industry and despite this openness to science it’s my guess that Japanese people are much less likely to eat GMO rice than are the rest of the world[2], due to the protected nature of the Japanese industry. This is pure surmise, however.

I am not opposed to GMO per se, though I have previously posted about how I think GMOs are over-rated as a solution to world hunger or specific nutritional deficiencies, and I think GMO’s boosters tend to ignore practical issues that dilute the importance of GMOs in the world food system; I also don’t believe for a moment that GMOs will solve “world hunger”, and I find the silence of GMO’s supporters on this issue very disturbing. I think shinshu salmon is an example of this issue in practice: it’s not solving any food security or health issues, it’s just some dudes in Nagano decided to create a new industry to take advantage of Japan’s hunger for “local” foods[3]. This is what I think happens with a lot of GMOs, that some biotech company decides it has an interest in a new product purely for profit, and when it runs up against seemingly nonsensical local opposition it post-dates some broader justification for the food based on food security or something. But basically there is no difference between roundup ready corn and shinshu salmon: it’s food designed for profit. The difference is that whoever designed shinshu salmon had the good taste to advertise it as a luxury food product, rather than pretending they’re solving world hunger. And in Japan no one cares, because a cartoon science dude says it’s okay.

If only things could be so simple in the west …

fn1: There is a huge whale restaurant in Shibuya actually, it has a big sign out front warning foreigners in English that it sells whale; recently I passed it and saw through the window a group of white foreigners eating whale. When I was in Iceland I noticed all the whale restaurants have English signs saying they serve whale. English-speakers may make a big fuss about non-English speakers eating whale, but they’re more than happy to tuck in when they’re overseas. Racist do-gooding? You be the judge.

fn2: This is obviously a somewhat false distinction, since all rice is hugely genetically modified; but I assume that my readers understand “GMO” applies to sudden, rapid, laboratory-induced genetic advances, as opposed to those achieved slowly through crop breeding, and we all understand that this is simultaneously an arbitrary but important difference.

fn3: Japan’s “local” foods are an interesting issue. Generally Japanese people seem to assume that every town has its own specialty and that this specialty is built on ancient tradition, but it’s my suspicion that these “specialties” were invented to take advantage of the post-war tourism boom that saw Japanese travelling internally back in the 1970s when getting a passport was really tough. It’s a modern, completely invented tradition, built on some kind of previously-existing and real notion of regional difference in food cultures. Originally there were a few broad, regional food cultures but in the cut throat tourist market of the 1970s every town started making its own specialty. My suspicion is that economic necessity drove the creation of “traditional” food cultures to attract tourism.



fn1: you losers! You are missing out on one of the world’s great cuisines!

I went to a Korean restaurant tonight, which was a bit of a disaster because I don’t know much about Korean food. The menu seemed to consist entirely of large bowls of spicy stuff (I got topkip, I think, rice cakes fried with onion and chilli in a chilli sauce, topped with chilli) or grilled meats. The grilled meat menu was extensive, but I didn’t want to go there. It was also a bit like looking at a butcher’s slab – there were Japanese descriptions of all the meats, and Japanese really doesn’t mess around with euphemisms when it comes to eating bits of a cow. They had “number three stomach” and “liver” and “number one stomach” and “small intestine,” so you knew exactly which bit of the inside of the cow you were getting. And there on the board, slap bang in front of me, was shikyu, 子宮, no mistaking it – uterus. Apparently it has a “light” flavour, and goes well with anything. And, unsurprisingly, it’s cheap – half the price of the cheapest bit of actual cow meat.

Could you eat uterus? Not in the “I was trapped in the amazon so I had to eat raw spiders” sense of “could.” I mean, casually, knowing what it is, on a Thursday evening in the city, when the menu also presents you with perfectly reasonable alternative meat-based options for a couple of dollars more. I vote “no” on the uterus question. How about you?


This is one part of my Valentine Day haul, chocolate from the Delightful Miss E. I will of course receive more, and got some more before the actual  day. This is because Valentine Day in Japan is not a festival if mutual affection and dating, but a cunnibg marketing scheme concocted by the faceless men of Big Chocolate.

And as a marketing  scheme it is of unparalleled wickedness, corrupting the western dating element and melding it to Japanese concepts of obligation and group membership – then targeting the whole  thing exclusively at women to make sure the meme manifests as fantastic profits. I love it for its sublime union of evil and chocolate.

You see, in Japan Valentine Day has been reconstrued as a day for women to give chocolate to men, starting with their lovers and proceeding through all the men in key positions in their life: family, friends, club members, colleagues, even their boss and teachers. This last set of recipients reflect the women’s oblugations to men who have helped her during the year, and is referred to as giri choco. By this point most women are so deep in chocolate that they give to female friends too.

As an example of the reach of this ritual, on saturday I went to see the band ElupiA, and their singer gave me chocolate just to show her appreciation for my support.

What’s not to love about Valentine Day in Japan? Just one thing: i have to repay the lot on White Day, March 15th. As I said, it’s a wicked scheme…

Random Encounter: Deep-fried Gnocchi

After visiting Unit club in Daikanyama to watch The Big Pink live, my partner and I went for dinner at the Sign Cafe, right next to Daikanyama station. The entire ceiling and most of the walls of this cafe are decorated in hex-map style, and on the ceiling near the door a ring of hexagons has been marked with the numbers 1 to 6, with a 7th hexagon in the centre labeled Random Direction. That’s right folks, this cafe had an old-fashioned hex-crawl map on its ceiling. Only in Japan could this be cool. The official website tells me that the wall graphic was designed by “Groovisions,” and the interior design was by a chap called Matt and a certain Lee Myeong-Hee (a woman’s name, I think). One of these three people is a role-player or a war-gamer, I think. And undoubtedly of a certain age.

You can see more photos of the groovy drink coasters and the decking at this woman’s blog. The food was good and the drinks menu both reasonably priced (unusual for Daikanyama maybe, which has an upmarket image) and quite varied (for a cafe). Unfortunately when I visited the cafe it didn’t look anything like those pictures – on a dark and stormy night it was not quite so sunny, and all the glass made it cold. If you visit, you will undoubtedly do so with a girl; bear in mind that they have blankets under the seats, you may need them in winter. It’s 2 minutes from Unit and last order is at 10, so you can get back there for a drink after a mid-week band. Maybe, if you ask nicely, you can play an upside down wargame on the ceiling…

Yesterday I discovered this excellent essay by George Orwell talking about the joys of English food. Many people will tell you that British food is terrible but actually that’s not true at all, and George Orwell mounts a spirited defense of the English culinary tradition in this article. What is true is the slightly different statement, “food you buy in England is terrible.” And it is certainly the case that since Britain opened its borders to the EU food culture there has improved immeasurably (this also owes no small debt to the antipodes). But this is more to do with Britain’s moribund business culture and society of low expectations than it has to do with original British cooking, which is actually quite diverse and interesting, and in many ways unique. I think Orwell sums up the difference between a tourist’s experience of British food and the reality with this pithy moment:

If you want, say, a good, rich slice of Yorkshire pudding you are more likely to get it in the poorest English home than in a restaurant, which is where the visitor necessarily eats most of his meals

This isn’t to say that British home-cooking is good: I have met many a Japanese person whose home-stay family cooked their food by “pressing a button.” But the fact that good British cuisine is a dying art doesn’t mean it isn’t great when it is done well. Here are some of my favourite British foods:

  • Portobello Mushroom steaks and burgers
  • Smoked fish in all its diversity, and especially the way English people treat eels
  • Rhubarb
  • Horseradish
  • A good cornish pasty, three days’ worth of food for about a pound if you buy it down Southwest way, my dahling my love
  • A good ploughman’s lunch, with the bread that Orwell approves of and a fine selection of pickles and cheeses
  • Ciders and ales, which are truly diverse and astounding in their range

I have to disagree with Orwell about the faggots[1], and in the next few days I think I should post on my experience of this most uniquely disgusting British food[2], but he’s right especially about the bread. When I returned to London in September I was all over the bread! Sadly in the two weeks I was there I only managed to eat one really decent British meal in a pub, for exactly the reason Orwell gives – British restauranteurs undersell their own cuisine and instead do a shit job of trying to cover continental stuff. But if you are looking for British food I think I can give a few recommendations:

  • Put on your stab vest and visit the Old Dairy in Finsbury Park (near where I used to live). They always have good food and usually it is representative of British stuff (though their non-British food is usually excellent)
  • Visit the store in the Borough Markets that sells ales. The borough markets are overpriced and over-rated but they are still good and the ale store is excellent
  • If you are in Devon, go to any pier during late spring and summer, and buy pickled cockles and mussels (alive! alive-o!)
  • If you are in Devon, there is a little village in the middle of Dartmoor (I forget the name) where the pub does a truly awesome pie. Order one for your whole family, and you will still feel the weight packing on when you leave. Follow it up with a visit to the local post office so that you can experience the joys of British service at its worst
  • Visit the Hartland Quay hotel in Hartland, Bideford Bay, Devon. The hotel itself is built on an old port where wreckers and smugglers used to be active, and is exactly the place you imagine when you’re reading the opening chapters of Treasure Island. Don’t park your car on the seaward side of the car park though, or it will get salt-damaged
  • Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s restaurant in London, is excellent and although the staff are all antipodean, the food always has a British inspiration. Jamie Oliver may be a complete wanker but he is a really, really good cook and he gets the basics right every time. The breakfast is also excellent
  • The smallest pub in Bath, the Coeur-de-Lion, does an excellent Ploughman’s Lunch. Bath itself is an absolute shithole and under no circumstances should you go into a tearoom, but if you do happen to find yourself stranded in this hellhole of British tourism, the coeur de Lion is your ticket to nirvana. Make the most of it, because at some point you are going to have to get on a Great South Western Train[3]

So, if you’re in Britain, do your best to find out what British people used to eat, and do your best to eat it. And make the most of the ales while you’re there – some of them are truly excellent. I recommend Otter, anything by Prince Charles’s company, the Wychwood brand (which I think is related to Prince Charles, and has the added benefit of being all dark and RPG-ish), and anything by the Hall and Woodhouse company (Badger Ales, the Fursty Ferret, etc.) Usually also ales with honey in are fun. And do try the cider when you’re in England (though obviously not strongbow). There are a wide range of locally-brewed ciders, some of which are truly monstrous and some of which are great.

If you do a culinary tour of Britain properly, when you leave you will never again have patience for the ancient adage, “all British food is shit.” Though, if you spend any time in Britain, you will know without a doubt that for 99% of Britons and 99.9% of visitors, it is undoubtedly true.

I would like to finish this post by observing that reading Orwell truly is a joy – he is one of the great exponents of the English language in its purest and most powerful form. And I would like to add – imagine if Orwell were blogging now, what a wonderful contribution that would be to the internet.

fn1: haha. I wonder what his view on homosexuality was?

fn2: Actually the most uniquely disgusting British food is my paternal grandmother’s pasta sauce, made entirely from one tin of tomatoes and one tin of steak and kidney

fn3: I once watched a Korean couple miss their stop because no one could figure out how to open the train door, so I will tell you this for nothing: the door handle of Great South Western Trains is on the outside, and even though there are big signs on the door telling you not to open the window and not to lean out of the window, this is in fact the only way to open the door. Also, when your ticket gives a seat number and a letter, ignore the letter. It is always A and it always means “airline.” This is the type of chair you will be sitting in while you travel in the train, except it doesn’t recline, doesn’t have a call button, doesn’t have a life jacket and doesn’t have an entertainment system so in fact is nothing at all like an airline seat. Only the number is relevant to where your chair is. It’s shit like this that makes foreigners understand why Britain lost its empire.