The weight of our nation: parliamentarians and experts discuss key issues surrounding obesity

Posted On: 
6th December 2018

Slimming World policy Roundtables and parliamentary reception, kindly sponsored by Eleanor Smith MP, comprised three individual Roundtables taking place simultaneously on key issues surrounding obesity.

Slimming World hosted three Policy Roundtables that brought together parliamentarians, health professionals and other industry experts to debate ways in which the obesity epidemic can be tackled, and help provided to the millions of people it already affects.

The themes discussed at the Roundtables were:

  • Body Image: How being overweight impacts on self-esteem and mental health

  • Raising difficult issues: How can health professionals be empowered to effectively raise the issue of obesity and weight management?

  • Tier 2 Weight management programmes: Where is the national voice and who should be responsible?

Speaking to participants at the start of the Roundtable event, Eleanor Smith MP said that managing your weight when living a busy life and managing a hectic schedule wasn’t easy in our modern environment where high calorie, high fat food is always available and it was less easy to find healthy options.

Body Image: How being overweight impacts on self-esteem and mental health

The first roundtable titled Body Image: How being overweight impacts on self-esteem and mental health discussed the impact of weight on self-esteem and mental health. The group concluded that both mental health and being overweight are two of the most stigmatising issues and often go hand in hand.

They discussed how a greater understanding of the barriers to change is needed. Dr Linda Papadopoulos, who chaired the roundtable, described how change is about ‘taking care of your future self’, something difficult to achieve if people lack value in themselves.  

In line with Matt Hancock’s interest in the potential role for Artificial Intelligence (AI) within the health service, they concluded that 21st century technology enables us to be more aware of risks to people’s health. For example, predictive prevention provides significantly greater amounts of information about differences between individuals and inequalities which is essential to tackling obesity on a wider scale.

The roundtable discussed the relationship between body image and identity and said that this relationship is different for today’s young people. Dr Papadopoulos said that that if body image is a reflection of how other people see you, in the past this was limited to those who were in your everyday community. Now, with global social media platforms, everyone and anyone can share their opinion on your weight. This has had tremendous ramifications in feeding into the unhealthy stigma around weight, which in turn becomes a barrier to seeking help.

The group called on government to equip those people that are in a child’s life to speak the language of both mental health and obesity, but also the language of how the two meet.

Raising difficult issues: How can health professionals be empowered to effectively raise the issue of obesity and weight management?

The second Roundtables were in unanimous agreement that health professionals must raise the issue of obesity and weight management with patients, and that they need to be empowered to do so effectively.

Having these types of conversations are important, especially non-judgemental conversations, stated Jenny Caven, Head of External Affairs at Slimming World and chair of the Roundtable.

The group emphasised how important it was that health professionals are equipped to be able to have these conversations without causing offense, resentment or distress. Inadequate conversations can cause more damage, they concluded.

Presenting their findings, the chair stated that whilst it is essential that all health professionals are trained, she warned that current training systems are significantly fragmented throughout the country.

The Roundtable called for mandatory health professional training on this issue, and suggested that the best way to ensure that it is included in GP training would be to implement an examination for the subject of ‘raising the issue’.

Alongside the definitive need for health professionals to discuss obesity with patients, the Roundtable concluded that people must be motivated to change their behaviour. Broad lifestyle choices should be encouraged as opposed to focussing purely on weight loss.

To equip health professionals with the right tools to have these conversations, it was decided that lobbying the Royal Colleges, general councils and the deaneries of universities was the most effective thing to do. This would mean training in this area starts at undergraduate level and continues throughout a health professional’s career.

 The chair called on politicians and policy makers to support  a strategy that would see all health professionals receiving training to confidently and empathetically raise the issue of weight and health with patients and signpost to effective support.

Tier 2 Weight management programmes: Where is the national voice and who should be responsible?

The third Roundtable, which was chaired by Dr William Bird, concluded that current tiered weight management programmes and assessed referrals system by the NHS were not working effectively.

For example, there are gaps between tiers in the existing adult programmes as well as gaps when patients are transferring from a child’s programme to that of an adult.

Additionally, because of trimmed resources, current weight management programmes have become much more likely to be focussed on treatment only. The Roundtable determined that weight management programmes should involve both treatment and prevention.

The myriad of different voices in the sector now means that support is available inconsistently, which has led to a lack of understanding about referrals. The group concluded that a singular voice - representing all health experts and industry leaders concerned about obesity - would be the most effective way to put pressure on government.

It was agreed that NHS England and Public Health England together are the best placed organisations to provide such a voice and the consistent approach that is necessary to provide effective weight management programmes. 

The group also called for a Minister for Obesity, saying it would be a powerful tool to address the issues in a cohesive way.

PARLIAMENTARY RECEPTION

Following the Roundtables discussions, Slimming World hosted a parliamentary reception sponsored by Baroness Benjamin OBE, Chair of the Fit and Healthy Childhood APPG.

Speaking at the event, Chair of the Obesity Group and member of the Health and Social Care Select Committee Andrew Selous MP, said that the issue of obesity had become “normalised” and would lead to “huge” costs to the NHS.

He described it as a “timebomb” that places increasing pressure on the future of the health service. 

The MP for South West Bedfordshire stated that currently a quarter of children in the UK start primary school overweight or obese and that 60% adults in the whole of the UK are overweight.

The Slimming World event, held for the second year running, was an opportunity for policymakers, health experts, and industry leaders to discuss how to best tackle the issues surrounding obesity.

Selous praised the role of Slimming World in tackling obesity, an issue that affects the most vulnerable. He said, “We are talking about children’s life chances, we are talking about huge costs to our precious National Health Service and it’s a social justice issue – it’s our poorest communities who are the most overweight.”

The audience heard how weight-related conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as poor mental health, are placing increasing pressure on already overstretched health care services.

Also speaking at the event, Baroness Benjamin described obesity as the “scourge of the nation” and that the problem had been “neglected” and is now “strangling” the country, especially our children.

The Liberal Democrat peer said that the issue of obesity has been “neglected” over the years and now is “something that stifling and strangling the nation, especially our children.”

Selous said it is time for the nation to face hard facts: “I think we need to be honest about it, about a quarter of our children start primary school overweight or obese, and it gets worse throughout their time at primary school.  60% adults in the whole of the UK are overweight. This issue has become normalised and we know the cost the NHS, diabetes bears the brunt of it but it is huge.”

The MP told the audience that as a member of the Health and Social Care Committee, he was familiar with the stresses on the NHS and recognised “solving” the obesity crisis would “relieve some of that pressure.”

Baroness Benjamin cited social media usage and the inability of medical staff to say the right thing as contributing factors to the problem of obesity, especially for children.

She said that Slimming World has taken on the “responsibility” of dealing with obesity issues and also worked to address causes of these issues by making people feel “worthy”.