UK government unveils new strategy to tackle obesity

A number of new measures have been revealed as part of the UK government’s new obesity strategy to assist the nation in getting fit and healthy in order to protect themselves and the NHS. This move comes after evidence of the link to an increased risk from Covid-19 in those with obesity.

According to the government, almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses reportedly costing the NHS £6 billion a year.

Some of the new measures to be introduced include:

  • banning television adverts for unhealthy food before 9pm;
  • ending ‘buy one, get one free’ promotions on foods high in sugar and/or fat;
  • introducing new laws for large foodservice businesses (of 250 employees or more) to list the calories in the food they serve;
  • plans to begin listing calories on alcohol;
  • expanding weight management services available through the NHS;
  • launching consultation into the current ‘traffic light’ front of pack nutrition labelling system, to understand how this is used by businesses and consumers in the UK compared to internationally.

Professor Judith Buttriss, director general for the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF), has said she welcomes the government’s initiative, stating that the measures are a “step in the right direction”, however, she has also said that further action will be needed in order to have a significant impact on obesity levels. She says: “The progressive rise in obesity we have seen in recent decades is related to major changes in our environment and the way we live, where energy dense foods are readily available and it’s very easy to be inactive. Therefore, tackling obesity requires many changes to make it easier for us to act on our intentions to improve our health, to eat healthily and be active, and this is not something that is quick or easy to fix.

“To tackle obesity effectively we also need to address the socioeconomic inequalities that we know are associated with risk of obesity, especially in light of the serious economic effects of the Covid-19 outbreak that are expected to be with us for some time. It is important that any measures to encourage weight loss do not make the stigma associated with obesity worse – this makes it even harder for people to lose weight and may discourage some from seeking medical support.

“The reasons why people develop obesity are complex and are not simply due to lack of willpower or motivation. Losing weight, and especially keeping it off, is very challenging and people need effective support to help them do this, in order to improve our health as a nation long-term.”

Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer at the Food and Drink Federation, has criticised the move, believing that many of the UK’s food and drink manufacturers will be “reeling today from this punishing blow,” especially during “such a precarious economic time.”

He continues: “Government is pulling in different directions. From August the Chancellor is paying for people to eat out whilst the Health Secretary is proposing banning promotions on the same foods in supermarkets.

“Further, there is very limited evidence that these measures will effectively tackle obesity. The UK Government’s own figures suggested that proposed bans on advertising and promotions combined would only reduce children’s average calorie consumption by 17 calories per day (2).

“For more than a decade, our industry has worked willingly with successive governments to reduce salt, fat and sugars. Government is right in its renewed ambition for a healthier, more active population, but it is also time it put real money behind specific, targeted measures to help those most afflicted by obesity, rather than relying on headline chasing measures.

“If price promotions are banned, already hard-pressed shoppers can expect to see their weekly shop become more expensive, at a cost of £600 per family (1). We have already seen evidence of this during the current crisis. Government policies should not put further pressure on rising food costs, which will disproportionately hit the tightest household budgets.

“Manufacturers, meanwhile, will see little point in introducing lower-sugar or lower-calories variants of their products into a market in which it will not be possible to advertise or promote them to shoppers. Since 2006, industry has worked in partnership with government and 100s of everyday products have been reformulated to make them healthier, in-line with government guidelines. Healthier choices will now fall foul of the government’s illogical rules. Start-ups and challenger brands will find it much harder to get ‘share of shelf’ against established brands without promotions to raise their profile, leading to less choice for shoppers.”

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