Ministers were warned that efforts to combat Britain’s obesity crisis will fail because the public is constantly being bombarded with unhealthy food choices.
Britain has one the highest obesity rates in Europe. Two thirds of British adults are overweight or obese. The NHS spends 6bn per year treating obesity-related illnesses. This figure is expected to rise to 10bn per year by 2050. The government announced plans to implement a 9pm watershed on television and a ban online on paid advertising for unhealthy food or drink. There will also be new restrictions on the promotion and sale of unhealthy food and drinks in retail outlets and online.
However, a 28-page damning report, commissioned and reviewed by the government’s own obesity research unit, warns that such efforts will fail unless greater changes are made to the food environment.
The Centre for Food Policy at London’s City University conducted the review and found that millions of people are struggling to lose weight due to easy access to unhealthy food. The review found that people engaged in weight management reported eating more simply because food was easily accessible and that this increased their desire to eat more often.
People also reported that it was difficult not to think about food, or make unplanned purchases of HFSS when you were greeted everywhere with promotions [high in fat, salt or sugar] food.
Even Britons trying to lose weight are being hindered by the unhealthy food they eat every day. City University experts conducted the review for the National Institute for Health Research’s (NIHR), obesity policy research unit. This unit commissions independent research to inform ministers.
The review concluded that even the best-designed weight management services won’t have much impact on Britain’s long-term efforts in weight loss. Ministers must also improve the environment.
Kimberley NEVE, the review’s main author, said that the review highlighted not only the difficulty of losing weight in Britain but also the fact that unhealthy food options are readily available and are cheap to purchase, fast and attractive.
The review revealed that people with low incomes struggle to manage their weight due to the lower cost of unhealthy food options. In addition, unhealthy food is more readily promoted and available in shops and supermarkets.
With Christmas goodies in abundance at the supermarkets and new year resolutions just around the corner, it is time for the narrative to shift so that people don’t have to eat the same January diet. Instead, they can ask for a food system and policy analysis workstream from the NIHR Obesity Policy Research Unit of City Universitys Centre for Food Policy. To achieve this, policy must be created to make it easier for industry to make changes.
Experts who weren’t involved in the review stated that the findings were shocking.
Jane DeVille Almond is the British Obesity Society’s chair. She stated: Our senses are bombarded with food smells in almost every activity that we do outside of our homes. Unfortunately, many of these foods are not good choices for people who are trying to lose weight or eat healthier.
She said that Britain must make changes in its food environment if it wants to be healthier. All areas of society, including cinemas, hospitals, activity and leisure centres, and supermarkets, must promote healthier options and offer tasty alternatives.
Caroline Cerny (the alliance leader at the Obesity Healthcare Alliance (OHA) said that the review showed that Britain’s obesity crisis was less a result of individual behavior and lack of willpower than it was about the environment around us. She said: The UK’s health problems are a result of unhealthy food and drink.
An OHA report published earlier in the year stated that Britons are exposed from birth to an obese environment. This includes a world where calorie-dense and nutrient-poor foods are easily available, affordable, normalised, and where physical activity opportunities are not included.
According to the new review, people often create diet plans but it can be difficult to stick to them due to the presence of supermarkets, public transport advertising, and work environments.
It said that unhealthy foods are so common and popular that people who want to lose weight or maintain their weight must avoid certain food environments, such as the supermarket aisle, the canteen at work, or friends parties.
Cerny stated that the government’s first steps in addressing this problem are positive. In 2022, there will be new restrictions on junk food marketing. We need more, Cerny said. This includes levies on the food sector to encourage them to produce healthier products.
Ministers are being asked to accept seven policy suggestions. These include balancing the UK’s food system to encourage more healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, to be available at lower prices. The review recommends that employers be encouraged to offer healthier options at work and that fast food outlets be incentivised for selling healthy options.
Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum said that similar measures had been advocated a decade ago but ministers did not act. The 2011 governments responsibility deal was an attempt at addressing all issues surrounding HFSS foods and was accepted by food businesses as long as it was not subject to regulation. The deal was scrapped when the government refused legislation. The researchers’ demands must now be enforced without exceptions.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care stated that: As part of our obesity strategy, we are introducing mandatory calories labelling in large restaurants and cafes. We also restrict advertising of high-fat, salt, and sugar foods on TV before 9pm and in paid advertising online.
We have also invested 70m in adult weight management services through the NHS and councils to ensure that people with obesity have access support that can help them lose weight.
The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities will expand on national efforts to combat obesity, improve mental health, and promote physical activity.