Get Rich or Die Young? It’s the Food!

Stockton-on-Tees in the North East of England has always been famous for its association with the Stockton to Darlington railway – the world’s first railway to operate freight and passenger service with steam-powered trains 1 . However, it’s now unfortunately known for something for which the residents are unlikely to be so proud about – England’s town with the biggest gap in life expectancy, according to Public Health England.

Rob Hill

A recent BBC Panorama television documentary called “Get Rich & Die Young” 2 covers the story of 46 year old Stockton resident Rob Hill, who is getting ready for his death. A lifetime of cigarettes and poor food have created numerous health problems including emphysema, lymphedema and type 2 diabetes. And he’s not alone. The Panorama presenter walks us through the local Stockton cemetery and shows just how many headstones reveal tragically low life expectancy, where reaching 60 years of age is unusual and dying after prolonged illness in your 40’s or 50’s is the norm.

Meanwhile, the more affluent residents live longer and healthier lives. For instance, in the satellite town of Yarm, only 4 miles away, the life expectancy is 86 compared with 64 in Stockton centre.

And the gap in healthy life/total life expectancy between the wealthy and poor is endemic throughout the country now. Stockton is just leading the trend at the moment.

But why is this? In historical times, it was the rich who would die younger from illnesses like diabetes, heart disease and cancer because of their rich diets. If the poorer citizens managed to outlive the childhood diseases and unsanitary living conditions, they stood a better chance of living healthier and longer lives than the rich.

The programme touches on a number of possible causes, including tobacco/alcohol/drug consumption, less access to healthcare and poor diet. But the latter of these is only briefly explored. Rob Hill does offer his own suggestion as to why his health deteriorated so rapidly. He had a job as a taxi driver and would consume a diet almost completely of drive-through fast food from the likes of KFC, McDonald’s and Burger King.

However, and this is where the elephant in the room appeared on the screen  – his young children, who were upset about how they were going to miss their daddy when he died – were tucking into plates of chips, pizza and kebab meat.

“It’s the food!” was a cry not heard but which should have been shouted throughout the programme. Instead, the focus moved to cigarette smoking and drug abuse, as though these were the leading causes of the early deaths. Of course, it’s true that smoking cigarettes is going to seriously harm your health, but deaths from diet-related diseases are now far greater than those from smoking tobacco products 3 4 .

Indeed, as Dr Joel Fuhrman states 5 : “…animal food consumption is more of a risk factor for an early death than even cigarette smoking. Of course, I am strongly against smoking, but a smoking, lifetime vegetarian probably has a better chance to reach 75 years of age than a nonsmoking, lifetime meat eater.

Almost all the ailments that Rob Hill and many more in Stockton and elsewhere throughout the country suffer from are avoidable life-style choices. Some important questions were not asked during the programme: “Why are less wealthy people dying earlier?” “Is it because food companies produce cheap, addictive junk that less well-educated citizens simply don’t know how to avoid?” And the answer to such questions is so obvious –  the vast majority of the diseases suffered from are non-communicable food-related diseases that can in the vast majority of cases be prevented, stopped and even reversed by changing diet from processed and animal-based to non-processed plant-based foods. But none of this was mentioned in any detail within the programme.

Watching this documentary, it can fill one with a mixture of anger and sadness: anger that something so simple as eating a healthy diet could transform the lives of families like these; sadness that they would probably not be able to kick their food addictions when they continue to be surrounded by ubiquitous advertising, marketing and sales of the very foods that are killing them.

Mr and Mrs Hill with one of their children

It’s easy to judge people who are obese, but perhaps the judgement should really be directed towards the government for allowing food companies to produce and sell such toxic crap under the guise of ‘food’.

Since it appears that political/commercial progress is painfully slow in dealing with this tsunami of non-communicable diet- and lifestyle-related diseases, it’s up to each one of us to try and take responsibility for our health and the health of the ones for whom we are responsible.

And the single best way of achieving this is to simply cut out the animal and processed foods, and transition to a wholefood plant-based diet. The main regret expressed by those of us who have already done so is “I wish I’d done it earlier!”


  1. Wikipedia: Stockton and Darlington Railway. []
  2. Get Rich & Die Young. BBC Panorama. 8:30 pm. 30th July 2018. []
  3. Obesity Responsible for More Deaths Than Smoking. Obesity-related mortality nearly twice the rate of tobacco-related deaths. Published Online: May 11,2017. Laurie Toich, Assistant Editor. AJPB. []
  5. Fuhrman, Dr. Joel. Fasting and Eating for Health: A Medical Doctor’s Program For Conquering Disease (p. 75) . Kindle Edition. []