A new Brexit era for the UK, a new Prime Minister, a new childhood obesity plan, but another false dawn in the battle to fight obesity. With the notable exception of the soft drinks industry levy, the UK Government’s childhood obesity plan is an old approach rather than a bold approach. It is heavily reliant on the tried, tested and largely unsuccessful model of voluntary action from the food industry. It’s safe to say food and public health NGOs won’t be awarding it any gold medals.
Diet-related diseases are rising rapidly in the UK, putting great strain on our healthcare. In June 2016, Simon Stevens, head of NHS England, told the House of Commons Health Select Committee that around £16 billion a year is spent on the direct medical costs of diabetes and conditions related to being overweight or obese. According to a recent Cancer Research UK study, almost three in four adults will be overweight or obese by 2035. And lest we forget, rising obesity rates are only one of the signs that our food system is failing.
It has been said many times before, but merits repeating: Government, businesses and individual citizens all have roles to play. And, as the plan acknowledges, it is about calories out as well as calories in. Crucially food businesses should not set public health policy, which is why it’s imperative that the Government doesn’t cave in to current industry pressure to scrap the tax on sugary drinks (the ‘face the facts, can the tax’ campaign).
The Food Ethics Council strongly believes that obesity is not due to individuals deliberately setting out to make themselves fat and ill through what they eat. Obesity is the outcome of a food system set up to promote cheap ingredients and cheap foods, including fast foods and ready meals, which are likely to lead to obesity, and unlikely to enable a healthy diet.
Obesity is not a matter of individual choice but of deeply unhealthy and inappropriate food environments (shopping, fast foods, schools, workplaces and hospitals) which promote foodstuffs that encourage obesity, and normalise dietary patterns which damage people's health. These environments are not created by accident; they are the product of choices made by national and local governments about planning, social structures, working conditions, school and hospital responsibilities.
The dominant narrative in our society is that it is the individual’s responsibility to make 'appropriate choices', but in food, this presumes a 'level playing field' and fair, appropriate choice being possible. For many people, these appropriate choices are impossible. Less healthy foods are three times cheaper as a source of calories than healthy foods according to the Food Foundation. This can make it very hard for an average family to choose food which is good for health within mainstream supermarkets, because unhealthy food is heavily promoted by industry and retail alike, as well as the media.
Many children don’t have access to healthy food at school, and are not helped by what their parents can afford, or have time to prepare, at home. Today's children are tomorrow's parents. This is why bolder interventions like restricting the advertising of foods with high fat, sugar and salt content to children across all media are so important – which makes their absence in the childhood obesity plan hugely frustrating.
An ethical response to the obesity crisis surely puts the long-term health and wellbeing of our children (and grandchildren) ahead of the profitability of major food and drink companies. The UK Government should enable and incentivise responsible personal choice, but it must also better protect the interests of the most vulnerable in society, including children. Sadly, the new obesity plan is unlikely to be effective if we genuinely want to change the new norm from ‘fat at five’ to ‘fit (and healthy) at five’.
One crumb of comfort lies in the last sentence of the plan: “Over the coming year, we will monitor action and assess progress, and take further action where it is needed.” (bold added for emphasis). Here’s to that further action sooner rather than later.