Childhood obesity is an epidemic that requires decisive national action from Government - Diabetes UK

Posted On: 
17th April 2018

Diabetes UK's Helen Dickens writes that while good progress has been made by the soft drink industry to reduce sugar in products, there is still a great deal that MPs and the Government can do to help tackle the obesity crisis and begin turning the tide on weight related chronic illness.  

Credit: 
PA

With around 62% of UK adults and 30% of children either overweight or obese, we are facing an imminent, devastating public health crisis that requires government action. Weight related, chronic health conditions – including Type 2 diabetes – continue to rise at alarming levels, placing significant strain on the health service and taking a serious toll on the health of the nation overall. 

Childhood obesity, in particular, is an epidemic that requires decisive national action from government. We know that helping families make healthier choices by encouraging small but tangible lifestyle changes is an effective way of improving their health generally. Importantly, for people living with or at risk of Type 2 diabetes, we know that lifestyle changes help people living with the condition to manage it more effectively and could help stem the rise in Type 2 diabetes. 

One clear way government can do this is by committing to introduce, as we leave the European Union, mandatory front of pack traffic light labelling on all food and drink packaging across the UK, and by introducing mandatory calorie labelling on menus in large-medium sized restaurants, cafes and takeaways. 

Evidence shows that clear food labels help us make better choices and give us more control over the food and drink we buy and consume; independent evidence from the Food Standards Agency shows that the traffic-light system works better than other labels to help shoppers make healthy choices when buying food. A Cochrane Review also found that calorie labelling on menus in restaurants and cafes could help people to reduce the number of calories they consume.

Understanding not only the calories, but also the amount of fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt in our food – and using this information to make healthy choices – is clearly a good thing. It not only helps consumers take personal responsibility for the food and drink they consume, it also can incentivise manufactures to consider their products, and can lead to reformulation. However, in addition to the strong evidence base that clearer food labelling makes a significant difference to the spending and, in turn, eating habits of the public we also know that this is something the public themselves want. 

Polling carried out by Diabetes UK, as part of our Food Upfront food labelling campaign, shows that while only three in ten people (29%) felt they had enough information about what’s in their food, 9 out of 10 people said traffic-light food labelling helped them make healthier decisions. More than three quarters of people (76%) said that cafes, restaurants and takeaways should display calorie information on their menus, so that customers understand the content of the food and drink they buy. Despite this, food labelling is not compulsory. One in three food products don’t have front-of-pack labels at all and many restaurants, cafes and takeaways still do not provide calorie labelling.

The public want to see parliamentary action on this issue; our research also showed that more than eight-in-ten people believe that the Government should – by law – require that the food and drink industry include traffic light labelling on all packaging. Likewise, almost three quarters (74 percent) of the UK public told us they think it is important that the government and industry introduce calorie information on menus in food establishments. 

MPs in doubt that this applies to their constituents should know that this support for Government intervention not only crosses all socioeconomic groups, but also represents the views of all nations and regions of the UK. 

Childhood obesity is a growing, deeply concerning epidemic that has the very real potential to be a health timebomb in years to come. Nearly two years have passed since the publication of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan and, while we’ve seen some good progress – by introducing both the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the sugar reduction programme – there is still a great deal that MPs and, in turn, the Government can do to help tackle the obesity crisis and begin turning the tide on weight related chronic illness. 

Introducing compulsory, clear and consistent food labelling is a simple, widely-supported change that would make a substantial impact on the health of the nation. It’s clear that the Government can, and should, take decisive action; listen to the public, and put this important measure into law.