The UK has one of the highest levels of obesity in Western Europe. Two in three adults are overweight or obese. This was revealed by statistics from the National Childhood Measurement Programme. In 2021, obesity rates among four- and five year-olds in reception classes increased to 14.4%, compared with 9.9% the previous year. In year 6, 10 and 11-year-olds, obesity rates increased to 25.5%, from 21%.
These figures can be correlated to the food environment in that individuals operate, new research highlights.
According to a systematic review conducted by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Obesity Policy Research Unit, the British food environment – where people eat out of the home and the advertisements and promotions they are exposed too – actively hinders people’s efforts at losing weight and maintaining a healthy body mass.
According to the review, people who are actively trying to lose weight due to the popularity and appeal of unhealthy food are forced to avoid certain areas of the food environment, such as the supermarket, work canteen or social situations.
This review shows how difficult it can be to lose weight in Britain and keep it off. It also shows that it is not easy to find healthy food options that are cheap, convenient, quick, and appealing.Kimberley Neve is co-author of this review and Research Assistant at Centre for Food Policy, City University of London.
The link between obesity & price
Price is a key factor that influences diet and health outcomes. The review revealed that people with low incomes find it particularly difficult to manage weight due to the lower cost of unhealthy foods. Researchers also stressed that unhealthy food is more often promoted than healthier options.
Government data would support this conclusion. Research by the National Childhood Measurement Programme pointing to increasing health inequalities across the UK would support this conclusion. Official data shows that obesity rates were more than twice as high in children who grew up in the most deprived areas (20.3%) than in those who grew up in the least deprived areas (7.8%).
Research by the Institute for Public Policy Research last year also showed a link between childhood obesity levels and poverty. The Institute for Public Policy Research concluded that if the health outcomes in the country were comparable to those in wealthy areas such as London’s home counties, approximately 40,000 less 10- and 11-year olds would be overweight and obese.
The peer-reviewed publication from NIHR suggested that well-designed weight management services may not have a significant impact on long-term weight reduction and maintenance efforts if the government fails to implement effective policy that addresses the environment.
The systematic review included 26 studies that examined people’s experiences with losing weight or maintaining their weight loss in their daily lives. These studies were published in 12 high-income countries between 2011 and 2020 and included 679 adult accounts. Researchers noted that the relatively few studies that were relevant to this topic reflect a general lack of evidence.
The NIHR Obesity Policy Research Unit published a series of key recommendations to policy makers for addressing issues in the UK’s food environment.
- Balance the offer to include more healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, and nuts and less on high-fat, salt, and/or sugar (HFSS) foods.
- Businesses and the public sector can work together to offer healthier options at work for lunchtimes as well as social occasions.
- Clearer labelling of foods, including information about portion sizes and nutrition, is essential.
- Restrict marketing of HFSS food & drink
- Incentives should be created to encourage the establishment of more fast food outlets that offer healthy options, especially around popular work locations.
- To make healthy food access more equitable, provide financial support to those at the bottom of the socioeconomic spectrum.
- Ensure weight management programs recognize the impact of the food environment upon the people they are supporting and integrate strategies around food shopping and social occasions into all programs.
Are new HFSS rules going to alter the food environment?
These suggestions will be considered to some extent when the UK implements new HFSS limitations later this year.
From October, HFSS food and drink products – as defined by the Department of Healths Nutrient Profiling Model – will be banned from prominent positions in store, such as end of aisle; they will no longer be sold on volume-based promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-free; and their advertising will be prohibited before a 9pm watershed.
Industry experts believe these changes could have a negative effect on the sales trends in certain HFSS categories. Kantar Worldpanel reports that around 15% of UK take-home drink and food sales are affected in terms of in-scope HFSS products. This amounts to 17bn annually.
Warren Ackerman, analyst at Barclays Capital, highlighted in a recent investor note how the UK regulation will impact HFSS categories differently. With manufacturers able reformulate expected to improve their game, it is possible for them to make changes.
Manufacturers would be expected to make significant product changes. Cereals, for example, has seen a lot more reformulation than other categories. Many products can now also be classified as non-HFSS. Some product types, like chocolate bars, will require reformulation to ensure compliance, but not to undermine customer acceptance.He pointed out.
However, the University of London’s Neve believes that this interventionist approach to food is necessary to support long-term dietary changes that are needed to address the UK’s obesity crisis.
It is time to change the narrative so that people don’t eat the same January diet and instead ask for a healthy food environment. To achieve this, policy must be implemented to ensure that industry has the opportunity to make changes.She argued.
How does the food environment affect people involved in weight management? A systematic review of the qualitative literature and thematic synthesis
Authors: Kimberley L. Neve, Anna Isaacs