Why social connections could be key to solving Britain’s obesity crisis
Pandemic lockdowns ushered in a series of well-known changes for us all. Some of these, such as strict restrictions on seeing friends and family, turned out to be short-term. Others, like changes to the nation’s working habits, appear to be here to stay.
But some of the hidden impacts of lockdowns on the lives of people in communities up and down the country are only now becoming apparent.
One of these is the way that lockdowns affected the lives of the large number of Britons who are uncomfortable with their weight.
Now, new research by Slimming World, the UK and Ireland’s leading weight loss organisation, has turned the spotlight on the overlooked issue of how a reduction in social connections affected people’s ability to maintain a healthy weight.
As the research launched, Dr Jacquie Lavin from Slimming World explained to The House Live why the restrictions introduced by Covid were particularly challenging for those seeking to improve their health through weight loss.
“In many respects, lockdown created a perfect storm that impacted on people’s ability to control their weight,” she tells us. “In particular, the Slimming World research shows that after nearly two years of lockdowns and social distancing, people are feeling less socially connected than ever before. That lack of social connection is contributing to their weight problems.”
More than a third (38%) of those questioned in the survey of 2,000 adults* reported that they feel less socially connected now than they did before the pandemic, and only 36% currently feel a sense of belonging within their local community.
When quizzed about the challenges of trying to manage their weight since the pandemic, 31% of respondents said they found it “more difficult,” with 12% of those stating it was “much more difficult”. Of those surveyed, more than one in three reported that they had gained weight over the past two years.
These figures come as no surprise to Jo Gideon MP, who has seen the damaging impact that lockdown had on health at first-hand in her Stoke-on-Trent constituency. She believes that the wider health implications of lockdown on those seeking to lose weight are only now being fully appreciated.
“During the pandemic, many of us found comfort in food, which resulted in a pattern of stress, becoming isolated and relying on unhealthy food, leading to weight gain,” she tells The House Live. “This has also triggered post-pandemic physical and mental health issues, with many people struggling to reintegrate into social surroundings.”
The critical role that social connections and peer support play in supporting weight loss emerges as a major theme in the Slimming World research.
The findings suggest that the face-to-face groups in community settings up and down the country provide a vital lifeline for those seeking to lose weight. This meant that, when the opportunity to meet in real life was unavailable, many individuals struggled to achieve the healthy weight loss that they aspired to.
“Our recent survey shows that one of the most critical issues during lockdown was that people didn’t have access to the support that social connection brings,” Dr Lavin tells us. “Struggling with your weight can be an especially lonely place to be. Creating opportunities for people to come together in a non-judgemental environment is an effective way to support people with weight management.”
The vital role that face-to-face support plays in supporting healthy weight loss is something that some MPs are now calling to be recognised more widely in public policy debates about obesity, particularly in the context of a wider shift to digital channels for healthcare.
“You can’t replace the importance of physically being in a room and physical and emotional contact,” Jo Gideon tells us. “It is a much better way of accessing support. A huge number of people have lost their confidence, some of which is down to weight gain, and it’s important that we change our habits, and break out of our comfort zones including coming into communities where you can find support.”
Conservative Peer and long-time campaigner on obesity issues, Baroness Jenkin of Kennington is also pleased that the new research is highlighting how isolation from usual support systems made life more difficult for those seeking to lose weight.
“I welcome this report,” she tells The House Live. “The latest statistics show that 28% of adults in England living with obesity and a further 36% are overweight. The cost, both to the individual and to the health service, is immense and unsustainable. Anything which can be done to help is to be welcomed.”
Dr Lavin shares Jenkin’s view that whilst weight loss is usually regarded as a personal decision, we should never lose sight of the broader implications for society.
“Maintaining a healthy weight is not something trivial,” Lavin explains. “For people who are struggling with their weight, there is an impact on physical and mental health. Not only is this affecting the health of individuals across the country, but it is also impacting on economic activity and creating a major challenge for the NHS.”
The figures bear out Lavin’s analysis. Even before Covid, the UK was in the midst of an obesity crisis that was costing society an estimated £27 billion each year and the NHS £6.1 billion. And this crisis impacts the most on the poorest in our society.
“We hear a lot about levelling up from politicians,” Lavin tells us. “Part of that has to be about ensuring that we are addressing the health inequalities experienced by different parts of our community. Slimming World does this through its network of 7,700 local groups across the UK and Ireland to support individuals and reduce pressure on health services. This is a resource that frontline healthcare workers need to be more aware of when supporting patients who are struggling with weight loss.”
What this research ultimately reveals, is that when it comes to weight management, social connection and face-to-face support are key. Building greater awareness of the importance of social connections is essential if individuals are to get the support that they need to maintain a healthy weight. If we get that right, it will deliver benefits not just to those individuals, but to society as a whole.
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