Your book Ultra-Processed People was voted The Times Science Book of the Year – why did it grab the public’s imagination?
People feel gaslit by their food and by the companies that make it. The book ties up the loose threads around nutrition. Science stories interest in two ways: they either completely turn your idea of the universe and yourself on its head, or they confirm everything you’ve always believed. This is the second.
You’re an infection diseases specialist at UCLH. How did you segue from that to nutrition?
For many years I worked in complex humanitarian emergencies where the children who I was looking after died of infections – but those infections were caused by aggressive marketing of baby food the parents couldn’t afford and had to make up with dirty water. That baby food was made by the same companies that make much of our ultra-processed foods (UPF) in the UK.
What’s the first step to weaning people off junk food?
I don’t want to wean anyone off unhealthy food. I want people to have real choice about what they buy. It’s none of my business what they choose to eat. No one has a duty to be healthy.
How can we persuade people to spend on “proper” food at a time of soaring inflation?
People don’t need persuading, certainly not by another rich, white, straight, privately educated man. If you got rid of poverty you’d solve 40 to 60 per cent of the obesity problem. People who can afford good food, eat good food; others don’t have the choice.
If you were PM what one measure would you take to improve the nation’s eating habits?
I would end all the financial relationships between the people and institutions that influence policy around food and the companies who profit from diet-related disease. Our major nutrition charity (the British Nutrition Foundation), our scientific advisory committee on nutrition and many academic research departments are funded by these food companies. The first brick in the wall of tobacco control was seeing industry money as dirty and that’s what has to happen now. You have to end the conflict of interests.
How can we tackle the fact obesity affects society’s most deprived?
You reduce poverty. The fact is poverty is very much more expensive than getting rid of it, costing £50-100 billion a year in crime, unemployment and benefits. Take that budget and end poverty.
Who would you choose to head a government task force on food?
Someone like the food writer Bee Wilson, who understands the philosophy and culture of food and is ferociously intelligent and has a 360-degree view. Another candidate would be Rob Percival of the Soil Association, or my sister-in-law, Dr Dolly Theis, both of whom understand policy and science.
The quality of school food is generally dire. How can we change things?
There’s a charity called TastEd chaired by Bee Wilson, with headmaster Dr Jason O’Rourke as a trustee, founded to make food knowledge part of the general curriculum. If every single lesson – biology, sport, maths, English – was built round food, that would be a perfectly good education.
How do you get your children to reject processed, sugary food?
My kids eat a lot of it because I don’t want them to be weird. Food is what you have in common with other people, so you can’t deny your children all the stuff other kids eat. But we don’t have much of it in the house. My way of getting them to eat veg is to say it’s the only thing available when they’re bored
What do you make of “wonder” weight-loss drugs like Wegovy?
I make of Wegovy what I make of treatments for lung cancer: that’s great, but we still need to deal with the corporations driving the problem. We can’t just fix this problem with drugs.
Fat was once the bad guy, now sugar is the villain. What’s the next foody Dr Evil?
The little fads come and go, but the problem of industrialised food – whatever we call it – is not going to go away. The concerns around saturated fat and sugar were well founded. We’ve now put them together: they seem to be most dangerous in the context of industrially processed food.
Your identical twin brother Xand is also a doctor and you came to fame presenting TV together. Do you share ESP?
I became friends with the academic and author Rupert Sheldrake because he wanted to do twin tests on me and my brother. Xand and I are the least telepathic he’s ever studied. We are like anti-telepathic twins: we can predict each other’s answers less than you’d expect by chance alone.
What one edible treat would you take to a desert island?
Fuchsia Dunlop’s Sichuan oil – then I could fry all the fish I caught with it.
Who is your current food and nutrition hero?
It’s got to be Carlos Monteiro, who alerted the world to UPF. He’s the most important public health nutritionist in the world.
Do you have a favourite restaurant?
Sweet Thursday in Dalston, the best pizza in London/the world.
What’s the perfect Christmas meal?
Last year it was my turn to cook for my extended family. I hate turkey because it cools down the oven, so I cooked two quite big chickens and told everyone they were micro-turkeys. They all said it was the best turkey they’d ever eaten.
“Ultra-Processed People” is published by Cornerstone