There was another excellent reminder of the perniciousness of this way of thought in this extract from Ben Goldacre's new book, Bad Science.
The World Health Organisation's Commission on the Social Determinants of Health reported this week, and it contained some chilling figures. Life expectancy in the poorest area of Glasgow - Calton - is 28 years less than in Lenzie, a middle-class area just eight miles away. That is a lot less life, and it isn't just because the people in Lenzie are careful to eat goji berries for extra antioxidants, and a handful of brazil nuts every day, thus ensuring they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.
People die at different rates because of a complex nexus of interlocking social and political issues including work life, employment status, social stability, family support, housing, smoking, drugs, and possibly diet, although the evidence on that, frankly, is pretty thin, and you certainly wouldn't start there.
... Food has become a distraction from the real causes of ill health, and also, in some respects, a manifesto of rightwing individualism. You are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. You hear it from people as they walk past the local council estate and point at a mother feeding her child crisps: "Well, when you look at what they feed them," they say, "it's got to be diet, hasn't it?" They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that's why you're healthy. You're going to see 80. You deserve it. Not like them.
It isn't just individualism, there is also the certainty of superiority underlying current day attitudes. It irritatingly pervades the current moral panic on obesity. More importantly, just as there are vested interests lurking in the huge diet industry (and in the marketing of food - I have just bought a packet of haricot beans that says prominently on the packet that they "may help decrease cholesterol"), so the cry of individual responsibility is highly convenient for a political elite that does not want to face the real importance of inequality and poverty to health, let alone tackle it. Instead they pronounce in unison, "let them eat carrots".
When Michael Young coined the term in his famous satire, The Rise of the Meritocracy, he described this attitude perfectly. The book was a warning against it. He could scarcely have imagined that his scorn would not bury the idea. Instead, his catchy name eventually, and ironically, ended up being central to the programme of the Labour Party. It is the triumph of the smug - and of a myopic political cowardice.