Islamabad (Dawn/ANN) - As recently as about two generations ago, most women in the West baked a cake or cooked a pancake from the basic eggs, butter and flour recipe.
Today, only a small fraction does this. They may know in theory how it is done but the popularity of factory-prepared mixes - just add water and set to cook - has far outstripped the old-fashioned methods.
Scientific and technological progress, it has long and often been argued, makes many things easier. But it also allows us to forget how to do things that our grandparents did as a matter of course. There's no great wisdom or depth to this observation. The modern world does not require most of us to learn a whole range of skills that were once considered indispensable, be it churning butter or sawing a plank.
One crucial change that came upon societies in the developed world was with relation to people's eating habits. The implications of this have only dawned relatively recently, and many governments are scrambling to undo the damage that has already been done.
Last year, a study commissioned by the UK's Health and Public Services Committee found that 240,000 children were obese, with another 160,000 overweight - in London alone. The city spends over 7 million British pound a year on tackling childhood obesity, but that bill could rise to well over 100 million British pound annually once the children of this generation turn into obese adults.
The study found that of several initiatives to counter childhood obesity taken by the mayor of London, lifestyle counselling by doctors and walking schemes proved least effective while a combination of dietary advice and physical activity worked best. An earlier study undertaken in 2006 by the Health and Social Care Information Centre found that in the UK, one in four children were obese and the figures had doubled in just 10 years.
Fat citizens make unhealthy citizens, and as with most things, it comes down to the money. David Cameron noted last year that obesity cost the state healthcare infrastructure a "staggering 4 billion British pound a year. But with four years, that figure's expected to rise to 6.3 billion British pound".
The change in people's eating habits can be attributed to myriad factors. When you're having lunch on the go, at your desk in office for example, you're more likely to have a sandwich constituted of processed meat and cheese rather than a healthy, home-cooked meal.
The harried mother who's come home late from work is more likely to rely on packaged macaroni and cheese than set a roast going. Certain fast-food eateries actually bribe children into unhealthy eating by handing out toys in accompaniment to kids' meals. Such factors are quite well-documented and do not bear repetition here.
More difficult, though, is figuring out how to deal with the situation and get people interested in eating healthy again.
Governments have implemented a range of initiatives such as counselling or exercise promotion. The imposition of a "fat tax" - aimed at discouraging unhealthy diets by taxing unhealthy food items - has been imposed or is under consideration in a number of countries.
Denmark has a "fat tax" and Hungary a "junk food tax", for example, while France imposes a tax on all sweetened drinks. Peru, Ireland and the UK are also considering such taxes.
Such taxes are opposed very vocally by many on the grounds that there should be a limit to the extent that the state intrudes into the personal lives of its citizens and their choices. It is unclear to me, though, why taxes on unhealthy food should provoke such strong emotions, for this argument can be made for a range of areas where governments impose taxes to control people's choices, such as on tobacco or alcohol.
In any case, a study reported this month (conducted by the Department of Public Health at Oxford University) found that in the UK, a "fat tax" would have to increase the price of unhealthy food or drink by as much as 20 per cent to begin to have an effect on consumption patterns.
Easier and less intrusive, many argue, is to target societal attitudes about food. And this is being done by transforming the process of cooking from being the onerous task of a weary housewife to a "cool" activity that is both interesting and yields actual benefits.
Cooking shows have always been on television but BBC Food (now absorbed and replaced by BBC Lifestyle) took the format and turned it into a fine art. The channel starting airing in 2002 and treated cookery with the photographic treatment it deserves, adding a competitive edge in a manner never achieved before.
Most importantly, cookery as conceived of by the channel's producers and directors was no longer the domain of middle-aged women but a pursuit worthy of the young and the hip, men and children.
Chefs such as Anthony Bourdain, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver showed that you can cook with panache, and the production teams showed that cooking can be combined with any number of television formats, from travel to humour.
This pioneering channel inspired many others around the world to follow suit, including in Pakistan. While obesity as a result of processed food is not yet too much of a problem here, unhealthy eating habits certainly are. Particularly in urban areas, changing lifestyles mean that the traditional oil- and meat-rich (for those who can afford it) diet causes more harm than good. Amongst the more prosperous sections of society, being overweight is an increasing problem.
In altering any dimension of social practices, inventiveness is key. Policing societies is an endless one-way street that leads only to more and more restrictions. But helping people discover the potential in themselves can be transformative.
The writer is a member of staff.