Obesity is a national emergency; to level up society, it must be addressed
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the direct link between obesity-related ill-health and vulnerability to the worst effects of the virus
Obesity is a national emergency, it’s time we treat it as such.
In England, around 68 percent of men, 60 percent of women and more than one in four children aged between 2 and 15 are obese or overweight, leading to health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which themselves lead to a higher death rate amongst those with COVID-19.
While this is a nationwide issue, research shows that rates of obesity are disproportionately higher among people living in the country’s most deprived communities.
Successive governments have adopted different approaches to tackling obesity, which until recently have relied heavily on encouraging individual behaviour change rather than addressing the structural issues and external factors that shape the food environment.
Factors such as the affordability and accessibility of unhealthy foods help us understand the association between levels of deprivation and rates of obesity.
Less healthy and energy-dense foods are typically low-cost, accessible, and are highly promoted in buy-one-get-one-free offers - while healthier and more nutritious foods are increasingly more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods.
Research shows that people living in the local authorities with the highest level of deprivation live closer and have access to almost five times as many fast-food outlets as those in more affluent areas.
Moreover, the difficulties in producing healthier diets are not limited to the price of food.
For many people in lower-income groups, considerations such as equipment, energy costs, limited space to store bulk purchases, and the cost of travelling to cheaper shops are very real and genuine barriers to consuming healthy diets.
Separately, these factors do not inevitably lead to unhealthy diets, and indeed they can be overcome. Combined, however, they represent a real barrier to accessing a healthy diet, especially when there are so many easy, cheap, and reliable alternatives available.
In 2019 the Government recognised the need for a new approach and commissioned the Dimbleby Independent Review of the food system, from field to fork, to inform a new National Food Strategy.
In 2020 the Government published the Obesity Strategy, which recognises that tackling obesity and improving our nation’s diet requires a partnership between consumer and producer.
This approach understands that we need to adopt a complementary method of policies that encourage and promote healthier lifestyles while simultaneously reshaping our external environment.
This is evident by the Government’s commitment to incentivising healthy food consumption by banning junk food advertising on TV before 9pm, while at the same time legislating to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt and restricting buy one get one free promotions.
Food and drink reformulation is one way to increase the accessibility of healthier foods, and producers are already being encouraged to consider the reformulation of unhealthy food and drinks via voluntary and fiscal policy approaches such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy.
However, these current reformulation policies could go a step further, and this will be examined in the second report of the National Food Strategy alongside how the implementation of such policies must be considered from the outset policy design.
But some options could include creating a “level playing field” in terms of reformulation incentives for all sectors and producers or the introduction of mandatory reformulation programmes.
Complementary approaches such as labelling and food packaging reform are necessary measures to properly improve the accessibility of healthy foods and disincentives unhealthy eating.
The Government has recognised this and has consulted on front of pack nutrition labelling. The consumer should be at the centre of the process, so we can make healthy and informed choices.
The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the direct link between obesity-related ill-health and vulnerability to the worst effects of the virus.
Whilst it affects all sectors of the population, its effects are felt more acutely in deprived areas, and considerable health inequalities persist.
Tacking obesity must surely be one of the key challenges in levelling up and improving the health of our nation.
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington is the Vice-Chair of the APPG on Obesity and Jo Gideon MP is the Chair of the APPG on the National Food Strategy.