Feb 10

Jamie Oliver: Ninja or Whinger?

In the last week I have read two articles on the proposed sugar tax.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver is, of course, a big fan, and has declared his intention to “get more ninja” with the government if it does not launch a strategy to combat childhood obesity.  Jamie’s proposed strategy is illustrated in this infographic (1):

Jamie Oliver's strategy to address childhood obesity

Jamie Oliver’s Obesity Strategy: a good move, or misinformed?

At the heart of Mr. Oliver’s strategy is a tax on sugary drinks.  This strategy has been much publicised, and has attracted a great deal of attention, but do we have any evidence that such a tax would, in fact be effective?

The bitter evidence
According to ‘New Scientist’ this week, the sugar tax is not as sweet as it first appears.  Mexico, a country which faces soaring levels of obesity, introduced a 10% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks in July 2014.  Since then, the consumption of these drinks has fallen by 12% (2), which sounds impressive.  However, when this is translated into what a person actually drinks, the results are somewhat different.  Sugary drinks consumption has fallen the most in the poorest homes.  Here, the tax has led to a fall in sugar intake equivalent to 35ml, or 1 sugar cube per day.  Not quite so earth-shattering, especially when you consider that this is not even an average, but a maximum when considering the population as a whole.  There is no evidence yet to suggest whether children are consuming less sugar as a result of the tax, in other words whether the tax would, in fact, be an effective tool in the battle against childhood obesity.  According to Emeritus Professor of Nutrition Dr Tom Sanders, a sugar tax in the UK is “likely to make no more than a token dent in consumption” (2).

Of course, it is still very early days; less than two years is far to soon to show whether or not a sugar tax contributes to health improvements, but it does seem that we need to take a closer look at whether this tax is likely to be beneficial in addressing our chronic health problems, or merely another way of making life harder for the poorest in society.

Good measures?

Jamie Oliver’s other strategies are interesting, but need further thought.  For example, it is entirely possible to buy ‘green light’ foods  which are filled with artificial sweeteners, preservatives and bulking agents, none of which are particularly healthy.  ‘Traffic light’ labeling can be misleading.  Regularly measuring children seems to me to be an unnecessary way to make children even more body-conscious, and to indulge in fat-shaming.  Believe me, every schoolchild who is fat knows it; they don’t need a measuring programme to tell them.

As a teacher I have seen many children who were large in primary school lose the weight in their teens due to a growth spurt; the extra fat they were carrying was needed to fuel this entirely natural process. Rather than focus on body shaming in primary school and trying some evidence-poor intervention, we should seek to instill healthy physical and mental habits for life in all children, regardless of size and shape, and let a child be a child and grow in the way nature intended.  I tried to find a picture of fatter and thinner children playing together for this article, but there was not even one.  What a shame.  Every child is beautiful, and deserves to feel that way.

Sweet steps for Success?
I am a huge fan of Jamie Oliver, and I do think his ideas are a step in the right direction, and a great deal better than nothing.  Underpinning his theories is some good, honest support for families in preparing real food from real ingredients.  He really does put his money where his mouth is, and should absolutely be congratulated for that.  He does intend that money raised from the sugar tax should go towards food education, but of course there is no guarantee that this would happen.  Perhaps the focus on sugar tax is media hype, rather than what Mr Oliver intended.  Nevertheless, I think it is extremely important that a sugar tax is not the only, or indeed the main measure taken to address obesity.  If it is, it will merely penalise the poorest families who, if unable to give their children cheap food, may not give them anything at all.  Obesity is often linked with poverty, so it is essential to support economically disadvantaged families in providing easy, healthy meals.
In my opinion, whether or not the government chooses to impose a sugar tax, it certainly should:

  1. Endorse and support means of purchasing economical healthy foods.  For example promoting street markets by supporting traders and creating local market spaces for budget produce as well as the more expensive farmer’s markets, and giving incentives to supermarkets for ‘wonky veg’ schemes such as the one recently launched by Asda.  Support (with funding or free promotion) local communities and charities in providing suggestions for using healthier foods, such as cookery demonstrations in markets.  Markets should be easily accessible by public transport.
  2. Ensure that schools have facilities for making proper food with children (in many schools I have visited the resources were very limited, and if there were cooking lessons – which was not always – the children mostly did baking).  Encourage school growing schemes, perhaps providing free or subsidised allotments, so that children can take pride in producing their own food.
  3. Provide ‘healthy school’ and ‘healthy workplace’ schemes where schools and workplaces can earn awards or rewards depending on the type of food that is available to their employees.  For example, there would be incentives for having water, herbal teas and a selection of healthy snacks available in the office rather than a junk-food machine.  Companies could have arrangements with local market stall holders whereby produce is made available for sale in the workplace itself, so that employees can access affordable, healthy food easily.
  4. Create and conserve safe and appropriate spaces for outdoor play and support sports and recreation initiatives and playing fields, so that all children can enjoy regular physical activity.
  5. Actively raise the profile of charities who are doing wonderful work to promote healthy cooking and eating amongst all sectors of the population.  How many of these great charities have you heard of?

My admiration for Jamie Oliver has not diminished in the slightest, but I would like to see more focus on a holistic approach where there is, in every sense, more carrot than stick.  Now that really would be pukka.


  1. http://cdn.jamieoliver.com/theplan/jamies-obesity-strategy-infographic.jpg [Accessed 9 February 2016].
  2. Sanders, T., (2016).  Much fizz, little pop.  New Scientist Special Issue February 2016.


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