Tackling obesity - 'Fit and healthy children will become fit and healthy adults'
At a Slimming World event, sponsored by Virendra Sharma MP, MPs, peers and experts gathered together to discuss the key issues surrounding obesity.
Virendra Sharma MP sponsored the event and, in his introduction, he outlined the importance of events like this so politicians continue to listen to experts from all areas – health campaigners, public health specialists, Royal Colleges and weight management organisations - in supporting public health programmes to tackle obesity. Following his speech, he invited the guests to take their seats to discuss three different topics on the key issues surrounding obesity; positive engagement over men’s health, maternal obesity and the link between alcohol and obesity.
ALCOHOL AND OBESITY
The attendees had an astonishing wealth and depth of experience, including Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth and former Health Secretary, Lord Andrew Lansley. This table was chaired by Shirley Cramer CBE, the Chief Executive of the Royal Society for Public Health.
Katherine Brown, Director at the Institute of Alcohol Studies, kicked off the discussion by stating that if you have a BMI of over 25, alcohol is twice as harmful.
“Something about the interaction between obesity and alcohol seems to double the risk,” she explained.
Laura McLeod of the Alcohol Health Alliance explained that almost half of people who are watching their weight do not count calories from alcohol as part of their controlled diet. Ms Cramer echoed this, saying it was simply not on the radar for most people. Those around the table agreed there needs to be a greater emphasis on the effects of alcohol consumption and the links between weight management and alcohol. One suggestion was putting the number of calories on pub and restaurant menus, as well as placing labels on alcoholic beverages. Previous social experiments have shown that this will affect people’s behaviours.
The delegates were, however, wary about comparisons to tobacco. “This is a complex area – this is not tobacco,” Lord Lansley said. “The UK wants to stamp out tobacco but they only want to control alcohol intake, which makes the latter more nuanced and difficult,” he explained.
A further suggestion from Slimming World’s Head of Nutrition and Research, Dr Jacquie Lavin, was reformulating products, such as changing the house wine in pubs from 13% to 11%. Another possible idea, from Kat Brown, was encouraging further targeted campaigns. One currently in existence is Dry January, which has previously encouraged people to cut down on alcohol intake.
The conversation concluded on a positive note after a diverse and comprehensive discussion. The delegates said they felt optimistic it could kick off a “genuinely good plan for the future”.
"We are very keen to support any initiatives that will help tackle the issue. We’re very concerned that the Government has not undertaken enough radical action to tackle obesity. This kind of policy forum is an excellent way for us to better understand what policy levers there are out there that we could use to improve the public’s health."
Duncan Stephenson, Director of External Affairs, Royal Society of Public Health
PREGNANCY & OBESITY
The Pregnancy and Obesity table chaired by Louise Silverton, Director for Midwifery at the Royal College of Midwives, and Lucy November, Midwife Research Fellow at Kings College London, highlighted the importance of recognising that obese mothers and fathers tend to have obese children. One of the main problems that the roundtable identified was the lack of clarity around weight gain in pregnancy. Women are not told how much weight they should expect to gain, and they are not routinely weighed throughout their pregnancy. Kelly Pierce, Senior Midwifery Manager at Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, stated that women do want to be regularly weighed throughout pregnancy, in order to prevent excessive weight gain. “Women are absolutely adamant that they want monitoring, as they want to have control in pregnancy.”
The panellists agreed they needed midwives and health assistants to do more around behavioural change: “The pregnancy time can be a golden opportunity for hearing public health messages and instigating behavioural change that may last postnatally and throughout life,” Ms November said.
But Pauline Cross, a consultant Midwife at NHS Lewisham, warned that if people looked at how many doctors, nurses and midwives had actually received behaviour change training, they would be “shocked”, urging that this was something the NHS should actively look at.
Although the table acknowledged they did not come up with the “magic bullet”, they agreed to continue working together.
MEN’S HEALTH & OBESITY
The Men and Obesity table, including Bob Blackman MP, Chair of the Primary Care and Public Health APPG, the Royal Society for Public Health’s Duncan Stephenson and the Royal College of Nursing’s Kathryn Yates, had a very lively discussion.
The delegates agreed that the UK needs a more gendered approach towards obesity and the way men and women approach weight loss. They called for some positive discrimination and a parliamentary working group around men’s health, agreeing they needed to see males as a separate audience.
They agreed they need to make men comfortable enough to ask for help, as currently this is something men have a problem with. The suggestion was made that often not seeking help was almost a “pride” factor, like never missing work or not going to the GP for many years.
The experts highlighted their concerns around exercise. Although it is perceived as a “socially acceptable way for men to lose weight”, evidence shows it is not the best way to control weight and the group want more acknowledgment about the role food plays.
MAN v FAT’s Andrew Shanahan said: “We want to divorce the concept of exercise equals weight loss - that would be a really powerful message to send. This is the biggest problem we come across.”
One other suggestion the delegates came up with to remove the stigma of weight loss, was to encourage peers to address each other. YMCA’s Liam Preston said: “the best advocates for quitting smoking are other young people. If we can convince young people that if you put calories in your mouth, they have to go somewhere, this will have an effect.”
In summing up, Slimming World Editor in Chief and roundtable chair Elise Wells, said the delegates did not feel that the Government has all the answers, so experts should come to together and contribute to a positive discussion.
"It is really vital that we have a broad discussion about how we tackle obesity. Obesity is the single biggest cause of cancer after smoking. At Cancer Research, we think we need a comprehensive strategy that looks at all of the factors that lead to children gaining weight in the first place. We need a range of solutions, like the sugar tax, but also need to look at how we can support families by tackling things like junk food marketing aimed at children."
Chit Selvarajah, Policy Manager, Cancer Research UK
“Thank goodness for Slimming World,” Baroness Benjamin said to a packed reception, later in the day, in the House of Commons. The Peer, who hosted the event, outlined the many issues obesity causes, including mental health problems, eating disorders and unhappiness. The peer then added that Slimming World, in its support, puts into people’s minds: “you are worthy, you are welcomed, you are part of a society that cares about you.” She went on to say that the answer to solving obesity is simple: “Fit and healthy children will become fit and healthy adults who will bring fit and healthy children into the world.” A further point that the Baroness made was that families are the key to the long-term health and wellbeing of the nation, both physically and emotionally. Whilst she said the work of Slimming World is worthy, welcome, and making a difference, she called on the audience to eradicate the need for the organisation’s work. Her call to action was to appeal to everyone to examine their conscience and think about their legacy.
Health Committee member and chair of the Obesity APPG Maggie Throup MP explained how important it is to get things right: “Too many people who are overweight are stigmatised and bullied - that’s so wrong.”
She went on to say obesity has a direct link on the nation’s productivity and it needs to be brought under control. “I don’t believe there’s one silver bullet but I commend Slimming World for everything they do.. and the impact that they are having in helping people to lose weight.”
Later in the event, the organisation’s positive role was highlighted by two separate speakers, both of whose lives have been changed after they joined Slimming World.
Thomas Munnelly, who is aged 17, lost three stone with the organisation. He explained how hard it had been growing up being overweight, getting bullied and lacking in confidence. Speaking of his experience, he said: “I didn’t want to try on clothes because I’d just come out feeling awful; so, where am I going to get an outfit to go to my friend’s house? I started making excuses not to play football because I didn’t want to run around and feel unfit because I would just be there, really struggling. I joined Slimming World and it completely changed my life. Now I can go into any shop and put anything on and know it will look great.”
Danny Crosby, Slimming World Man of the Year 2016, spoke movingly about the severe body shame he experienced all his life. When Danny joined Slimming World in July 2015 he weighed over 20 stone and was, in his own words, ‘in a desperate state’. Danny says; “I lost eight stone in just eight months while never experiencing hunger. I also began exercising, gently at first just walking to the park. I slowly built this up and after losing the weight I began attending a gym and working with a personal trainer.
“I feel like a new man. I have never felt more alive and more connected. This shows in my work and personal relationship. I have a busy life as a Unitarian Minister and am involved in my community in many ways. I am now better able to serve the people I encounter in ways I could never have begun to dream of.”
We are very keen to support any initiatives that will help tackle the issue. We’re very concerned that the Government has not undertaken enough radical action to tackle obesity. This kind of policy forum is an excellent way for us to better understand what policy levers there are out there that we could use to improve the public’s health.