Towards the end of July, the UK Government unveiled their latest strategy to tackle obesity. Interestingly, this strategy appears to have only come about after the Prime Minister was treated in hospital for COVID-19.
There are many problems with this strategy, not just with the strategy itself, but also the groups of people consulted while it was written. The main policies for the strategy are as follows:
- Calorie labelling will become mandatory on restaurant menus.
- The Government will look into introducing calorie labelling on alcohol products.
- Buy One Get One Free (BOGOF) deals on unhealthy foods will be restricted, and locations of these deals e.g. end of aisles.
- The NHS will offer more weight management services.
- Fast food adverts will be banned before 9pm on television.
At this stage, the policies look like they might help. Indeed, as someone who tracks their calories, and finds it hard to track calories after eating out, this would seem to be helpful. However, as we will find out, this will not be the case for the majority of us.
Eating disorder charity BEAT responded to the strategy with major concerns related to the stigma of obesity. It appears that the Government was blaming people for being obese, which does a lot more harm, and which people don’t deserve.
You’re never going to convince someone to eat better or lose weight by blaming them, when the problems are much deeper rooted in society, such as poverty and the food industry.
Furthermore, eating disorders affect over 1.25 million people in the UK. Calorie labelling is a harmful policy as evidence shows this exacerbates eating disorders.
There is also the issue of safeguarding, because a weight loss app might exacerbate eating disorders if people under 18, or with a low weight use it. Essentially, this means that a weight loss app, while suitable for obesity, could harm people with eating disorders.
Despite the Government releasing this strategy, the prices of many healthier food products continue to remain higher than prices of unhealthier products.
For example, it is much easier to pick up a 45p packet of biscuits for someone living in poverty than it is to pick up two chicken breasts for £2.85.
And some people will need to feed their families as well as themselves. This creates a problematic issue with the restriction of BOGOF deals. These deals are utilised by families who need to feed their households.
Rather than buying fresh chicken breast, fresh vegetables and fruit (both of which go bad quickly) these BOGOF deals together with frozen food products are the difference between what food is on the plates of people living under the poverty line.
We already know that the UK has a large drinking culture, which is probably why gyms didn’t open before pubs did. But it also begs the question of how alcohol calorie labelling will even help. This is already in place in countries like the United States.
As long as the price of alcohol remains low, people are going to drink it. In contrast, countries like Iceland and Norway have higher alcohol prices. But these are due to state owned alcohol shops, and yet even these countries have problems with obesity.
The food industry has played a major role in the UK’s obesity crisis. Particularly after the sugar industry placed the blame on fat (despite fat being an essential macro). As a result, low fat options tend to contain hidden sugar.
But the food industry also hired food scientists and psychologists in order to manipulate the public into believing these hidden sugar food products were actually healthy. Foods like cereals and crisps, which are some of the worst culprits for obesity.
Tackling the crisis is not about policies which hurt people in the long run.
Weight management services on the NHS are of course, a welcome part of the strategy. But we must also place emphasis on our fitness. Our diets do not stop some of us from living sedentary lifestyles. A lot of long working hours in workplaces such as offices, and commutes often mean we’re sitting down.
What this strategy does is give short term suggestions, without long term success.
Instead, policies must be focused on safeguarding, protection, representation and inclusion of all of us. We must work to end the food, fuel, and appliance poverty that affects so many of us in the country.
Instead of banning adverts on TV, which does not provide any long term benefit, the focus must be on educating children about obesity and providing more inclusive PE lessons that are not based on a harmful model of teaching that alienates particular groups.
Those of us who can, switch to shopping from healthier sources such as farm shops, farmer’s markets and local independent run businesses like butchers and greengrocers. Not only will they need our support as a result of COVID-19, but people create demand, which will eventually lower prices as the demand for more products results in an increase in supply.
Education is key. We must look into providing learning resources based on budgeting, nutrition and meal preparation. Home economics must come into play if we are to make any sort of future progress. There are ways to eat healthy on a budget, but the majority of us are not taught this.
Finally, we must add fitness into the equation. If you can, try to move more. Even just a few thousand steps will eliminate the time spent sedentary, while posture problems created by a sedentary lifestyle can be fixed with some stretching and strengthening of particular muscle groups.
Obesity is a much deeper issue, which cannot be eliminated by this Government strategy in the long run. We can and must do better than this.