If Rob Lyons, a London-based, libertarian-leaning Web columnist and author, isn’t exactly the local food movement’s nightmare, he is a minor annoyance. Mr. Lyons is the author of Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, in which he argues that we should stop worrying so much about the toll our diets may be taking on our bodies and the planet, and simply enjoy ourselves.
Mr. Lyons is scheduled to speak in Toronto next Tuesday at the Conference Board of Canada’s Canadian food summit, where he’ll debate Canadian authors Sarah Elton and Andrea Mandel-Campbell, as well as Mark Bittman, columnist for The New York Times and bestselling cookbook author, about local food. The Globe spoke with Mr. Lyons from London last week.
You’ve written that the childhood obesity crisis is a lie dreamed up by power-hungry health researchers, that the local food movement is an elite-driven money grab, that big food corporations have all but saved humanity, and that Jamie Oliver is an “authoritarian busybody.” I presume you also kicked a puppy on the way to work today?
Did I say quite all of those things? Certainly in terms of the obesity crisis, I think for some people there is a problem, but they’re a much smaller minority of society than is being painted. In terms of local food, I really can’t see any reason why we should promote local food in general. If your local food happens to be Parmesan cheese, which is a world-famous product, or if I want something syrupy to put on my pancakes and my local syrup happens to be Canadian maple, great. But I don’t think there’s any particular reason to celebrate local food as such.
How is childhood obesity not a problem?
In Britain, we’ve seen childhood obesity rates plateau in the past few years, but rather than expressing, ‘Oh look, our worst fears don’t seem to be coming to pass,’ what’s happened is that the whole crisis is talked about out of all proportion. Just because a child is chubby, it does not necessarily mean that they’re ill, although that’s the way it’s being presented at the moment. Or that it’s inevitable that if they’re chubby as children they’ll become thick adults. I think that’s greatly overstated.
Secondly, I think that the real root of the problem may not be fat itself. There seems to be a much stronger connection between ill health and the kinds of things that we eat, in particular refined carbohydrates. In other words, obesity and ill health are caused by a common root, rather than obesity causes ill health, if you see what I mean.
Time and again, health campaigners, doctors and politicians are very happy to overstate these problems because it gives them a certain amount of leverage into intervening in our lives. I would much rather that people relaxed and ate food and didn’t allow that intervention to take place.
What have you got against Jamie Oliver? How could there possibly be anything untoward about trying to get kids to eat healthy meals at lunch instead of, for example, all these refined carbohydrates that you’ve just identified as a problem, like pizza, pop and chips?
When Jamie’s program was first announced, I was really looking forward to it. As someone who received free school meals myself, I thought they were a good thing. And also, my mom was a school dinner lady, so I have a real personal interest. I thought the idea of making school meals tastier and of a better variety was a good thing.
Unfortunately, when Jamie actually presented his program, he made all sorts of alarmist health claims about the problems associated with school meals. The upshot was actually to put parents off school meals. The uptake rates after his program went down quite sharply.
What do you plan to eat for dinner tonight?
Every time somebody starts a discussion with me about food, and the problems of food, I seem to get drawn to McDonald’s. There’s a little part of my brain that rebels against the idea that I’m not supposed to eat there.
No doubt you’ll also smoke a carton of cigarettes and drink a vat of whipping cream afterward?
Well, maybe a vat of beer. Yeah, I shall be drinking and smoking. I only smoke when I drink alcohol. And then maybe I’ll eat something greasy and officially unhealthy on the way home.
This interview has been condensed and edited.