Telling pregnant women to stop guzzling is not body-shaming
Despite the militant reponse it will get, we have to speak truth to ordinary people, however unpalatable it is
Legend has it that, in Ancient Rome, a slave was tasked with standing behind Julius Caesar and softly whispering into his ear: “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal.” Speaking truth to power was never easy, not least because if Julius had just stubbed his toe and wasn’t feeling particularly receptive, the slave would be swiftly dispatched and replaced.
My, how times have changed.
These days, speaking to those who govern us is as easy as a few keystrokes on Twitter and an updated Facebook status. It has become far harder to speak truth to ordinary people, even if they urgently need to hear and heed it.
We live in a hair-trigger culture where the instinct is to take offence, rather than advice. Even when the advice comes from leading experts in their field.
Michael Gove, the current UK environment secretary, once famously, foolishly, retorted that we had had enough of experts. May that phrase come back to haunt him next time he needs his big end bearings replaced or a hiatus hernia popped back where it belongs.
We do need experts because, on current showings, we are eating ourselves to death in front of tiny screens. It’s a pity – a wholly perverse pity – that perfectly reasonable exhortations to live healthily, eat less, move more and replace online gaming with face-to-face contact should be met with outrage. Even the most sober research figures into health are received with indignation and hostility.
When empirically proven facts are treated as calumny, it’s pretty evident that something has gone badly awry in the “democratisation” brought about by our hyperconnectivity.
I’m not sure when, exactly, truth became such a subjective concept. Or when Phil down the pub’s opinions gained the same, um, weight as the UK’s General Medical Council. But last week we learnt that a mother’s poor diet causes chemical changes in her unborn child’s genome. Results from a group including the University of Southampton and published in the International Journal of Obesity have demonstrated “epigenetic” changes in babies whose mothers gained a lot of weight in pregnancy. These alterations partly explain the child’s subsequent risk of obesity; your DNA is fixed at birth, but the extent to which different genes are expressed can be affected by your environment, a process known as epigenetics.
Previous studies have shown that mothers who put on more weight in pregnancy tended to have children who were more prone to obesity, even when socio-economic factors were taken into consideration. The good news is that combating obesity can begin in the womb by ensuring pregnant women do not overeat and have a healthy diet. I have to say, if I’d known this I would not have binged on salmon and cream cheese bagels in my first pregnancy, egg mayonnaise and warm Fanta in my second. Neither of my children is partial to any of these foods, aside from the odd sneaky six pack of Fanta Zero I hide in the basement and secretly drink with the younger one. But it is mollifying – horrifying – to think my several-kilogram weight gain could have had serious consequences for my unborn children.
What struck me most about these findings were the words of one of the report’s co-authors who said they “now needed to work out how best to advise pregnant women”. Once upon a time simply saying “stop with the pasties, here’s a natural yoghurt and an extra apple” would have been enough. But these days even health professionals are terrified of the militant response to anything that resembles “body-shaming”.
Despite the established fact that obese women are less likely to conceive, there is always an outcry over discrimination every time an IVF clinic sensibly turns away someone who is plus-sized and politely asks them to return when they have reached a healthier weight. Not so long ago the Royal College of Physicians mooted the idea of recognising obesity as an illness rather than a lifestyle choice. Ostensibly, it would reduce the stigma surrounding overweight people, but I fear it would backfire very quickly.
Take the new study by the University of East Anglia that has shown lesbian women are 41% more likely to be overweight than heterosexual women. For bisexual women the figure is 24%. Does that mean their sexual identity causes illness? Good luck explaining the nuances to a minority understandably weary of being ostracised and suspicious of being labelled as “other”.
Gay men, on the other hand, are three times more likely to be underweight than straight men. That’s not healthy either, but it sounds more like psychosocial pressures at work than a medical condition.
What do I know? I’m no expert, you may say. I’m not, but I would counter that it doesn’t take a professor of metabolic medicine to be concerned by the prevalence of such extremes.
As a parent, how can I not feel anguish for the 24,000 British kids aged 10 and 11 who are formally classified as “severely obese” by the National Child Measurement Programme. Those may not be my children or your children, but this is our society and we need to do better by the next generation. If that means urging – all right, offending – pregnant women not to eat for two, well then so be it.
It’s important and necessary for those in power to speak truth to the people, however unpalatable it may be. I’m just very glad it isn’t me who has to spread the message.
– © The Daily Telegraph