My younger daughter may have Down’s syndrome but she has a firm grasp of the principles of weight loss. Last week I said to her, after getting off the scales: ‘Oh dear, I’ve put on more weight.’
Her response was instant: ‘Eat less, move more!’ And to my reply that I would try to do so, she was equally succinct: ‘Don’t just try. Do it.’
My daughter has the right to lecture me. She has qualified as a Zumba dance instructor, while I am an exercise-averse glutton — and, at almost 15 st and 5 ft 10in in height, on the Body Mass Index cusp between overweight and obese.
On the other hand, Boris Johnson, who is shorter than I am but was said to be 17 st 7 lb when he was admitted to hospital with Covid-19, is — or was at the time — definitely obese.
Boris Johnson – pictured with his fiancee, Carrie Symonds – is said to be planning a war on obesity after deciding his own touch-and-go battle with coronavirus was exacerbated by him being overweight
This has made a profound impression on the 55-year-old Prime Minister. According to the well-informed political editor of the Spectator (the magazine Johnson once edited): ‘He is convinced that the reason he ended up in intensive care was because of his weight. The Prime Minister has been heard to remark, “It’s all right for you thinnies” when discussing the disease.’
And when asked how to avoid the worst of Covid-19, he is reported to have said: ‘Don’t be a fatty in your 50s.’
However, it is best to be careful — especially if you are PM — when making medical pronouncements on the back of a purely personal experience. Is there actually a connection between dying from Covid-19 (as Boris Johnson might well have done) and obesity?
Evidence is accruing to this effect, although, since those rushed to intensive care units critically ill with Covid-19 are not weighed and measured (there are more important things to do), such information is partial and subjective.
But I’ll go along with the latest research led by Professor Norbert Stefan of the Institute of Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases in Munich, which concludes: ‘Preliminary data suggest that people with obesity are at increased risk from Covid-19. However, as data is scarce, increased reporting is needed to improve our understanding.’
There is certainly a common sense reason to believe that being very overweight would make survival less likely. Covid-19 is a disease which kills by attacking lung tissue — and the fatter you are, the more constricted your lungs are already, simply through force of compression. If you are chronically out of breath to start off with, that is doubly bad news.
Research led by Professor Norbert Stefan of the Institute of Diabetes Research and Metabolic Diseases in Munich suggests people with obesity are at an increased risk from coronavirus. File photo
However, if that is part of the problem, then it is also a clue to the solution. It’s best to be as fit as possible — and that can certainly be achieved even if you are, technically, overweight.
In fact, I would say that Boris Johnson is an example of this. I know him quite well, and he always struck me as physically fit, despite his ample waistline. As London Mayor, this was achieved by cycling everywhere and never using a vehicle (even though he was entitled to a chauffeur-driven one).
Once, we met for lunch in Hammersmith: he cycled there and back from the Mayor’s office — 16 miles in total. And he didn’t seem at all out of breath when he arrived.
Despite the fact that, as Prime Minister, he has been prevented from continuing with this mode of transport (his security team would never allow it), I suspect that it was his residual fitness which helped him pull through with only a short time in intensive care.
So I was not surprised to learn that Boris Johnson is now planning to introduce measures designed to make it easier for people to use bikes for their journeys. It would indeed be better if he promoted exercise as the remedy for obesity, rather than increasing taxes — specifically, the so-called ‘sugar tax’ on fizzy drinks.
This was promulgated by George Osborne, the then Chancellor, in 2016 — chancellors always like to find new ways to tax us — though it was not introduced until a year later.
By the time the measure came into force, a number of soft drink manufacturers had pre-emptively reduced the sugar content of some of their sweetest products by as much as 30 per cent, which led supporters of the tax to declare it a public health triumph.
Only here’s the catch. Overall, the sugar consumed by us here in Britain went up and not down, according to Public Health England, by the equivalent of 0.5 per cent per person nationally.
This rather bore out the warning of a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Public Health in 2014, entitled Why Fat Taxes Won’t Make Us Thin.
It pointed out that taxes, especially in areas where people had developed addiction, could have counterproductive effects. They would find their sugar kick somehow, even if it meant switching to other sweet products.
Since the introduction of the ‘sugar tax’, sugar consumption has increased by the equivalent of 0.5 per cent per person nationally
Or — and this is a particular problem among the least well off, who are the principal social target of this well-meant policy — they would substitute some of the now more expensive sweet foodstuffs with something no better for them: ‘For example, potato chips covered with salt.’
But Boris Johnson has always been reluctant to tell people what they should eat. When a mere backbench MP, he supported parents who were seen pushing pies through the railings of a school which had introduced ‘healthier’ food to pupils: ‘Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings? I say let them eat what they like.’
And in his campaign for the Conservative leadership, Johnson promised a ‘review of the sugar tax’, arguing that such measures were disproportionately falling on poorer families and that the evidence that they reduced the consumption of unhealthy foods was ‘ambiguous’. He added that he wanted to see the proof that such taxes ‘actually stop people from being so fat’. Proof of that has not so far been demonstrated.
Such measures do satisfy the urge of many people to punish the unaesthetically obese. But that is not in itself sufficient justification.
It is true, however, that the necessary will-power to ‘eat less and move more’ is very hard to inculcate in a fast-food culture, where even when people do move by their own leg-power, this is only achieved while simultaneously stuffing their faces.
Not that the more socially desirable method of eating food at the table, and with family, is guaranteed to produce a healthy outcome. My great-grandfather Gustav died on the operating table because he was too fat for the surgeons to achieve what they wanted.
On the other hand, my father Nigel, mercilessly mocked for his obesity by cartoonists when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, did manage to lose a prodigious amount of weight after leaving office (and even explained how, in The Nigel Lawson Diet Book).
More from Dominic Lawson for the Daily Mail…
Not everyone has his willpower, however. And, unlike him, I can see no future in a life without potatoes. In this, I suspect I am closer to the average Briton.
So my own recipe was not to lead a life of culinary austerity but to hire a trainer, Wendy, who bullies me into torturous exercise. I lost some weight, but not much.
On the other hand, I became much fitter, so that, as Wendy explained: ‘You can now run to catch the train to London without getting out of breath.’
Alas, with the lockdown, that exercise (both running for the train and being made to do endless push-ups by Wendy) has been suspended for two months now — with the consequence I revealed to my most unsympathetic daughter.
Probably only a minority can afford a personal trainer. But thanks to the internet, it is now possible — without fee — to follow an exercise programme while being shouted at by glowingly fit American women, much scarier than Joe Wicks (which is what my wife endures).
It may be, however, that if it is proved that the obese are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, then the best thing for the Government to do is bombard us with advertisements along the lines of those introduced when Aids struck (‘Don’t die of ignorance’).
Something like: ‘Eat less, move more, live longer.’
My daughter would approve, anyway.