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Government’s obesity strategy likely to be thin on impact

The Government has launched its Obesity Strategy, and its aims are laudable.

We are the fattest man, woman and child in Europe. Almost two-thirds of us are overweight or obese, and the number of children in Year 6 throughout the UK who are overweight or obese climbs ever higher with every year.

We live in an obesogenic environment. Multiple snacking is now the norm. Walk down any street and you will see individuals eating as they walk – we are now a population of grazers.

The foods many of us  eat don’t just make us fatter, but hungrier too.  Truly, a vicious circle.

We know that diet and weight loss is not a simple matter of calories in and calories out. What foods we eat directly effects our hormones, and those who have significant weight issues have them because their bodies tell them they are furiously hungry. Even after consuming what an average weight person would consider a vast amount of food.

We therefore need an integrated and joined-up approach to tackling weight loss, so how do the latest UK Government measures just announced, square up to the problem?

Ban on Junk Food Advertising before 9pm

We applaud this and have long called for advertising restrictions on processed foods high in fat and sugar. Pester power is real, but beyond this, seeing these foods advertised normalises their place in our lives. We also applaud the fact this will also be enforced online.

Ending 2-for-1 Offers

Again, this is something long called for by Slow Food, health campaigners and civil society groups. 2-for-1 offers encourage over consumption, and frequently leads to food waste if not all the food can be eaten at once. The economics of these deals means that only highly processed foods can afford to run these offers – it’s why you never see a 2-for-1 deal on apples.

Removal of Junk Food from End of Aisles

This will have the effect of reducing some casual purchases, but a bigger issue is that these foods are available everywhere, from vending machines in our stations to whole aisles in our corner stores. They’re a key “component” in many “non-food” stores: visit a petrol station and you will find multiple confectionary items. In many cases, you must walk past these before you even get to the end of the aisle.

Calorie Listing on Menus

The requirement to list calories on menus provides a degree of transparency, but many restaurants already do this. From McDonalds to Wetherspoons, the information is already there in black and white. A wider issue is that many junk food purchases are “extra meals”, in other words, snacks. These are not considered by individuals to be significant, so the calories don’t feel like they matter either. Likewise, those who are dining out for a “treat” disregard their calorie allowance for the day.

Most of us underestimate the amount of calories, fat, sugar and salt in foods, and most of us overestimate the amount we burn off from exercise. Even though we do this,  very few people would say that eating junk food is healthy or low in calorie. Instead these foods are consumed for complex and nuanced reasons: from perceptions of affordability, whether the food is hot – partly why fast food restaurants thrive, hot meals are about love- and a multitude of other reasons.

Children Do Not Cook (or Shop) and Adults Keep Getting Fatter

Whilst the aims are laudable, it will be perhaps a challenge that these measures will tackle Childhood Obesity to any great degree. Whilst we absolutely support the 9pm threshold for advertising to denormalise these foods, and understand that pester power is real, that is not the whole story.  We also know that pester power is less in the very poorest families (there is no spare money to pester), these families are on average even more obese than their wealthier counterparts.

Likewise, children may have small amounts of pocket money, and they may buy small amounts of chocolate and crisps with this, but obese children are obese because of their overall diet – a diet which is fed to them by adults. Whilst recognising that some children do have a say in what they eat, most children do not.

Removing High Fat, High Sugar foods from end aisles will reduce some casual purchases, but it won’t remove it from dominating countless shelves in store, nor the addictive nature of these foods. To have a truly radical effect, we need to look at what’s on all the shelves, not just the very end of the aisles.

Whilst it is possible to eat well on a limited budget – indeed Slow Food teaches classes on doing this – to do so requires skills, equipment, and access to fuel. Living in fuel poverty means a noodle pot and boiling water is a sensible option, and many people lack access to one or more of these.

It can also be expensive since the healthy options are not subsidised in the way sugar, oils and commodity crops are, both within the UK and across the globe. It’s what makes them cheaper.

We Need to Think Radically Differently

These measures are a first step, but they need to be followed up with more interventions.

For example, a sugar and fat tax on foods, with the income raised subsidising unprocessed natural foods.

We also need to consider wider nudges to encourage healthy choices. We eat more crisps than any other place in the world. But how many of us share a 50g sharing bag of crisps? Rather, let us have mandatory pack minimum sizes – increase the pack size to 500g, so anyone who wants them can still eat them, but it’s less likely to be a casual , impulse purchase to eat walking down the street.

Ditto with sugary soft drinks. A two-litre bottle means the product is not banned and even more desirable, but it becomes hard to walk around with. After all, 2 litres weighs 2kg!

Advertising bans on TV are a good first step, but should be carried into print media too.

We also need to see joined up approaches to obesity and health: the Eat In to Help Out scheme, giving £20 of food for £10 is dominated by fast food chains. We agree that hospitality businesses need support, but better surely to give direct grants to struggling businesses that sell food which is good for us and the planet, than to prop up chains which are not part of the solution.

We need to recognise that good food in particular for those on low incomes is a challenge, and that we need to subsidise it: either for all of us, or via vouchers to those receiving benefits – this could be funded by food sugar taxes, or VAT on unhealthy foods: there is no VAT on chocolate biscuits (or indeed any sort of biscuit!), nor famously on take away sausage rolls.

It is easy to say that these foods are fine in moderation, but we must recognise that access to good fresh food is a challenge for many.

Finally, we must also stop demonising those who are overweight and obese as lazy and feckless and start to understand the root causes of obesity as a society.

If we do these things, then we have a hope of change. And in the face of the added risks faced by obese patients facing COVID-19, that change needs to happen fast.

Shane Holland

Executive Chairman Slow Food in the UK

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