The Independent, 21 August 2012

Perhaps it’s because I am returning from a week of reviewing in Edinburgh, but when I read the headline ‘Don’t tell me what to eat,’ I can only hear it being belted out by Barbra Streisand, to the tune of Don’t Rain on my Parade. Which has undeniably made the Adam Smith Institute’s new report a little jauntier for me.

According to their recent research, we don’t like being told what to eat or drink by the government, or at least 48% of us don’t. And since the government’s consumption advice is rarely to have a second plate of chips and a large chunk of cheese, who could be surprised? The government, as is well known, prefers to tell us to eat 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, and for those not to be solely in the form of lemon curd and potato waffles. That is advice that many of us don’t want to hear.

A mere 22% of us are keen on the government telling us what to eat, and those people are presumably too young to have seen Cyril Smith in parliament. Or indeed Eric Pickles. The numbers skew slightly on gender lines – more woman think the state should butt out of their lunches than men (49% to 45%). But the real difference is in the age of the respondents: only 28% of 18-24 year-olds oppose government cheesecake-intervention, whereas a hefty 57% of over-60s do.

The interesting thing about these numbers is that they directly reflect what many of us already believe – that young people need their hands held all the time, while older people are vastly more self-reliant. So I think it’s worth mentioning that statistically, the people who reject government advice are also the most likely to be overweight or obese.

The independent Social Issues Research Centre have been studying obesity for several years. Their numbers are intriguing. Children, despite the endless headlines suggesting that they are all now basically spherical and would be rolled over their school playing fields if only the fields still existed, are getting slimmer. Fewer children are either obese or overweight than were so in 2004, and more of them now eat five portions of fruit or veg a day. Fewer of them smoke or drink alcohol than did so in the late 90s. And slightly more of them now take an hour of physical exercise a day than children did a decade ago.

Under-24s are vastly less likely to be overweight or obese than older people. Young men are more likely to be underweight than obese. Being middle-aged or retired are the danger years for fatness: which encompasses the exact people who are more likely to eschew government health warnings about booze and food intake as the machinations of a giant Mary Poppins complex.

So while it may be tempting to stuff muffins in our ears to avoid being told what we already know, perhaps we should exercise a little restraint. The really interesting question, I would suggest, is whether more older respondents to the poll said they disliked government interference, precisely because they already know they’re overweight. No-one likes being told something they know is true when they wish it wasn’t.

The other interesting point about this poll is the level of political disengagement it reveals. Almost two thirds of us don’t think that either politicians or civil servants are well equipped to take decisions on our behalf. Now that might be perfectly understandable, given how hopelessly disjoined government thinking appears to be (sporting legacy vs. flogged-off playing fields being only the most recent example).

But it’s also rather worrying, given that making decisions on our behalf is pretty much exactly what we vote politicians into parliament to do. The Adam Smith Institute cheerily reports this scepticism as a sign of our magnificent self-reliance. A more negative reading might be to suggest that we have lost faith the entire system of representative democracy. So should we turn up and vote on stuff ourselves, like the Swiss? Well, I’ll consider it in exchange for some of that cheese.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess that I have written this while eating a slice of cake. This is because I am on a train, and travelling long distances without cake is as stupid as doing it without wheels. Also, I need the energy, as I am in the middle of a week of reviewing hiking art works. By which I mean that I am hiking, and the art is also moving. On Sunday night, I climbed Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh, having been armed with a lit-up walking-stick. Given my tendency to wear floor-length black at all times, I like to think I resembled a hardy nocturnal wizard.

As you clamber up the hill in the dark, runners (wearing dark costumes covered in lights) form patterns on the inclines nearby. It is serene and lovely, and only occasionally precarious and alarming. Today, I head to Norfolk, to walk round Robert Wilson’s descriptively titled ‘Walking’ art installation. I like art on the move: it’s more fun than standing around in a gallery, and I can wear sensible shoes with pride.