Economic planning, obesity, and lessons from Japan

Whilst many have discussed obesity as a national health problem, this framing ignores the curtailing of individual liberty that obesity produces; from the limits it often imposes on everyday activity to wide-ranging health risks and even potentially shortened lifespans. This framing is probably why the substance of obesity discourse revolves around how this often agency limiting phenomena is supposed to be ameliorated by limiting agency. 

As a Liberal whose BMI straddles the line between overweight and obese, I think that obesity reduction policies should be based on expanding the agency of people, rather than curtailing it through Pigouvian taxes or even outright fat shaming.

This can be achieved by learning from the successes of other countries, primarily Japan. According to the 2017 OECD report the rate of obesity in Japan was 3.7% among people aged 15 years and older, whilst in contrast, the OECD average was 19.5% and that figure stood at 26.9% in the UK.

What explains this low rate of obesity? 

More regular exercise? 

About 25% of Britons age over 16 are classed as “physically inactive” as of 2017/18 whilst at the same time over 40% of Japanese people (aged 18 and over) admit they don’t exercise or take part in sports activity.

A lack of poverty?

As of 2017, 15.7% of Japanese people lived on 50% of median household income or less, compared to 11.9% of people in the UK. 

So, what is going here?

A good answer comes in the form of a YouTube video by an American expat living in Japan. As a person who has lived in two different societies, he provides a unique perspective on Japanese and American diets and a beautifully simple thesis for Japan’s lack of obesity; Japanese people have access to cheap, varied and convenient healthy food in a way Americans (or indeed Britons) don’t.

An American wanting to eat breakfast out is often stuck with the choice of a McGriddle with hash browns or pancakes at Denny’s. In contrast, a Japanese person going to one of their nation’s 5000 rice bowl establishments (specifically Sukiya, one of the big 3) can get a bowl of plain rice, Miso soup with seaweed, an egg, baked fish plus a potato salad for 390 Yen (or about $4). Sushi, rice bowls, packets of stew and salads are all available at Japanese convenience stores (which are 10 times more numerous per square kilometre than in the US) for a reasonable price. An Izakaya (which is a standard drinking establishment in Japan), offers a broad range of fairly healthy food options ranging from grilled fish, edamame beans and Konbu salad. Japanese people also consume far less sugary beverages their American counterparts owing to customary free tea with meals, and the nation’s 5.52 million vending machines offering customers cold black coffee and various types of unsweetened iced tea (as opposed to just Coca-Cola and the like).

The lesson is clear. 

If we want a healthier Britain, we need to make it easier for people to buy healthy food that is varied, convenient and above all cheap. The expansion of choice as a means to lower obesity rates is a policy solution that should be accepted by liberals of all stripes. However, given the extent to which food provision within this country would have to change, a different policy instrument must be used. One which British Liberalism has not for advocated since the middle of the last century. 

Economic planning. 

The Liberal Party in the early 1960s saw the need to modernise British industry in the face of outdated industrial practices and customs, through economic planning with the 1964 Liberal manifesto calling for a national plan for growth. The Director of Research at Liberal Party Headquarters, Harry Cowie, was one of the most notably proponents of this approach. He argued there was much historical precent for British Liberalism to accept some form of planning, stating in Why Liberal? : ‘Liberals introduced the first Town and County Planning Act and the Coal Mines Wages Act… Of eighteen factory Acts since 1833, Liberals have been responsible for twelve.’ 

That being said Cowie did not see economic planning as inherently good; deriding Labour’s state-centric approach to it (rather than a dialogue between enterprise and the state) and the Conservatives’ priorities of short-term economic growth (rather than a focus on the long term). He also saw the need for democratic oversight, stating ‘Planned intervention by the State… is acceptable to Liberals so long as it is open to democratic control’. Indeed, these thoughts were echoed in the 1964 manifesto, which called for such measures to ‘be drafted…in consultation with industry and the unions and then submitted to Parliament for debate and approval.’

When solving a widely publicised issue this party should be conscious of framing the issue in a Liberal way and call for a Liberal solution; and reducing obesity rates by expanding agency via economic planning is just such a solution.


* William Francis is a Liberal Democrat member & activist, former vice-President of the University of Lincoln Liberal Democrat society (2018-2019) & candidate for the Lib Dems for Glebe ward in the City of Lincoln local elections 2019.

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  • I well remember Harry Cowie, and I know that Michael Meadowcroft will too, from my days at LPO in 1964.

    Harry did the research and had the ideas…. together with a range of academic advisers….. and Jo Grimond fired the bullets. Harry and Jo were an outstanding team as Head of Research and as Party Leader.

    Until the modern party is able to call on similar talents today, what’s left of it will drift along in a 4 to 8% (or even less) vacuum. One thing is for sure economic liberalism (a la 2007-15) and identity politics has a very limited market.

  • In Scotland’s capital, the latest Council by-election on Thursday seems to confirm my opinion. Fifth place yet again, with the Scottish Greens getting twice as many votes as the Lib Dems (8%).

    Craigentinny/Duddingston (Edinburgh) By-Election, First Preferences:

    SNP (Elected) – 2920 (39%, +1.8)
    Con – 1420 (18.9%, -4.8)
    Lab – 1205 (16.1%, -7.2)
    Green – 1185 (15.8%, +4.1)
    LD – 631 (8.4%, +4.2)
    Ind – 93 (1.2%, +1.2)
    Libertarian – 42 (0.6%, +0.6)

    Back in 2005 in the Edinburgh East Westminster constituency Liberal Democrats came a strong second to Labour with a quarter of the vote – with the Greens on 1%. The times they are a changing.

  • The issue of obesity is very similar to that of smoking and as with smoking there is not a silver bullet but a number of measures. And I speak of someone who is obese.

    Our fat cells produce a hormone called leptin which makes food less attractive. If we have less fat food is more attractive. There are many such mechanisms that act to mean most people gain weight when they have taken it off. It is estimated that 80% plus who lose weight gain the weight again.

    This may seem that it is a lost fight but actually the statistic is about the same as for smoking and millions of people have quit smoking. As with smoking one of the solutions is to make the environment more conducive to walking and cycling. To increase taxes on sugary drinks etc. To recognise that as with smoking people have an individual responsibility but on the whole populations will act at a population level similarly. So while people have an individual responsibility not to drink a sugary drink, taxing them will mean a decrease in their consumption.

    We also need to be a little careful that everything needs to be state planned. There is a big role for the state. Private enterprise runs on the infrastructure that it creates – roads, the internet was originally a US Government Defence project etc. But private enterprise is also a inherently liberal, bottom up, responsive mechanism.

  • I suggest that the issue should not be limited to obesity. We need to discuss the whole problem of chronic ill health. The steps that need to be taken are generally agreed in reality. The NHS website is a starting point, and most similar organisations in the world have similar messages. We have diet, we have exercise, we have a lack of excess stress, clean air to breath, limiting other poisons being eaten and drunk. They are things everyone knows.
    We then need to look at the steps which the government have control of. I was teaching before and after the introduction of a national curriculum. There was a strange approach to the design of a curriculum. Subjects which were thought to be “academic” were the “real” subjects. Cooking and nutrition had been very widely taught but this was thought not to be academic enough. Cooking became part of technology, and there was even an attempt to introduce design and manufacture into what was taught. This is a long winded way of my saying that if we want a healthy country we need to teaching cooking to all. We also need to understand that this does not need to be via a block of lessons every week for five years, but that is another story.
    We need to also recognise that the choice of diet is only the case for those who can afford it. We need to get rid of poverty to build a healthy society.
    I remember in the forties there was a campaign about digging for victory. This is of course something that all should learn – gardening, linked with nutrition.
    So I agree with William Francis, and thank him for his article. But we need to stop dreaming of a post-COVID mythical future and look at the reality of life for many locked in poverty, poor housing, stress etc. There seems to be a growing consensus that we should have around ten years to deal with our planet’s environmental crises. So we need to recognise that there isn’t long left. And next year it will be nine years.

  • Sustained changes of behaviour come from personal insight. All the education and planning in the world won’t help unless the person wants to change. It’s not an intellectual exercise. We all know what we should do. To do it however entails an internal process that will come when it’s ready. That is not to mean making the change easier won’t help once the decision is made.

  • @peter Hirst

    Um… basically for a long time we have all known what to do on smoking. But its really really tough to do so. And a lot of mechanisms have been necessary… taxation, health education, nicotine replacement therapy, banning advertising etc.

    I can tell you from experience that it is tough not losing weight but keeping it off. The reason is obvious dieting is the equivalent of having a famine, as soon as plenty resumes i.e. stopping dieting it was crucial in our caveman past that we started eating.

    As with smoking obesity has to be tackled in many different ways. Such as making it easier to walk and cycle in our towns and cities.

    And yes @Tom Harney more education on cooking and nutrition would be useful – perhaps particular how to evaluate claims made on packaging and by the food industry would be useful. I haven’t spoken a word of French since I left school but I have had to feed myself.

  • Thanks Michael 1. At the school where I taught – a mere thirty or forty years ago – the children learned to cook and taste both their own and processed foods and then to compare them. They also learned basic nutrition and this included reading and understanding the lists on packaging.
    It has only been recently that I have understood that the problem many children had with labels was to do with eyesight.
    Things have changed though now I believe. Now children are put under increasing stress to get meaningless grades in not very meaningful subjects.

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