Traditional Italian cookbooks often use the abbreviation ‘QB’ in the place of measurements for certain ingredients. It stands for ‘quanto basta’, which roughly translates to ‘as much as is enough’ or, in other words, ‘you know what you’re doing here’. This may well have been the case at the time of publication but, now (as shown by the decline in its usage), it appears that most of us don’t really have a clue.
The question of how much is ‘enough’ is one that is proving increasingly difficult in developing societies that have never been more detached from the production and preparation of food. The concern has deeper roots than the seasoning for your saltimbocca. From costs to levels of consumption, our measurements are off and it’s a serious problem.
Between the fast food revolution and the rise of supermarkets, stocked with aisles of microwave meals, the burden of actually having to cook has been largely alleviated. The system is convenient and, in many instances, cheap, but also a major delegation of responsibility. Despite the ease and affordability of food, it is now estimated that one in five deaths around the world is attributable to a bad diet. It’s a devastating irony that the global population has never been so well fed and that we’re killing ourselves with food.
The Global Burden of Diseases study in The Lancet shows that obesity has become the fastest growing global killer and the situation is particularly bad in Britain, where a quarter of adults are obese. Addressing the issue on Radio 4, Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England said: “fundamentally, to address the nation’s obesity problem we need to eat fewer calories”. Put simply, people are eating too much.
In an effort to tackle the volume of consumption, much of the emphasis of Public Health England’s new ‘world-leading childhood obesity programme’ has been placed on pressuring supermarkets to reduce portion sizes. While the move may well produce positive results, akin to those achieved with the sugar tax, it once again outsources the responsibility of dietary choices to manufacturers rather than consumers.
The same cannot be said of the initiative from NICE, calling for GPs to refer overweight patients for NHS cooking and exercise classes. The courses will encourage those at risk of health problems, such as type two diabetes, to take preventative action by educating them about balanced diets, portion control and exercise. With calls to urgently refer 1.7 million people, the £435-a-head classes are expected to cost the taxpayer billions, though it is hoped that the money will be recouped in savings on future treatments for consequential conditions. The obvious question here is why should we wait until individuals are middle-aged and showing symptoms of ill-health before teaching them how to have a healthy relationship with food?
The need for greater knowledge seems counterintuitive when considered in the context of the foodie zeitgeist. Thanks to social media, particularly Instagram, we’ve never had a more detailed record of what people are eating. And yet, it may well be that this is helping to fuel the cognitive disconnect between food and nutrition. As food historian, Laura Shapiro, wrote in The New York Times, Instagram focuses on ‘glamour’, leaving ‘ordinary meals at home – the great unknown’. Effectively, we’re airbrushing our mealtimes in pursuit of online approval. When the image is everything, flavour and nourishment take a backseat.
Unfortunately, no amount of filtering can mask that when a lifestyle disease becomes the world’s fastest growing killer, we’re living wrong. As a society struggling with both fast food and flash food, the onus is on us to restore balance to our approach. Somewhere between ignorance and obsession, we must cultivate a culture in which all people have the familiarity and understanding to know when enough is enough.