We must level the playing field and end the pro-obesity environment
With our food market dominated by big chains, it is harder for people to make the healthy choice, writes Dean Hochlaf
You would struggle to find someone completely oblivious to the health risks of a poor diet. When it comes to public health, dietary risks are second only to tobacco as a leading cause of preventable illness. From diabetes to cardiovascular disease and even some types of cancer, the prevalence and visibility of health problems associated with what we eat has never been greater. This raises the question: why are we still struggling to get to grips with the growing obesity crisis?
Unlike smoking, where we have seen rates decline since the early 1990s, the proportion of adults who are either obese or overweight have continued to rise. Across every country of the UK, at least one in four adults is reportedly obese, significantly higher than two decades ago.
The problem is not just confined to adults. Childhood obesity is of increasing concern to health professionals, with the Chief Medical Officer currently conducting a review into the issue. Today an estimated 10% of five-year-olds are reportedly obese. The spread of obesity is not equal throughout society. Over a quarter of children from the most deprived areas of England are obese by the age of 11, far higher than their peers from more affluent areas. Obesity entrenches health inequalities and exacerbates existing social inequities with negative outcomes that persist into adulthood.
'Over a quarter of children from the most deprived areas of England are obese by the age of 11'
If we want to understand why we have failed on this front, then you only need to look around next time you visit a supermarket or walk down the high street. There is a reason why sweets and chocolates have bright and colourful packaging while the fruit and vegetables are found in clear plastic bags. There is a reason why confectionary aisles are located next to the checkout. There is a reason why the most deprived areas of England have up to five-times more fast-food outlets than the most affluent areas.
These are but some examples of what we have come to recognise as the ‘obesogenic environment’ – our everyday surroundings which actively encourage the excessive consumption of ultimately unhealthy foods.
The emergence of a pro-obesity environment reflects the radically evolving modern food industry. Gone are the days of the local grocer. The food chain now is dominated by international and domestic corporations. Products are formulated against a backdrop of extensive and rigorous market research. Huge sums of money flow into increasingly sophisticated marketing campaigns. In short, the colossal sector plays a crucial role not only in satisfying our tastes, but in shaping them as well.
It is the overwhelming influence of the food industry and the environment we live in that have played a heavy role in the growing obesity crisis. For too long we have adopted an approach which blames and punishes the individual for harmful health behaviours, while ignoring the realities of the commercial pressures that normalise and encourage excessive consumption.
We must move away from this tried and failed effort to curb obesity. We should stop passing judgement on parents who buy their kids treats which are very clearly marketed towards children. We should try and understand why someone in a low wage job or in precarious employment finds pleasure in a bit of junk food that we all know isn’t good for you. We should recognise that for millions of people, every day life is complicated enough without having to worry about providing nutritious, healthy and enjoyable meals when they are more expensive and time consuming to produce.
Any new strategy must be rooted in efforts that aim to make the healthy choice the easy choice. A recent report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) advocated policies which would achieve this, not through penalising people for what they ate, but through changing the commercial environment so that it became much easier for people to make better choices.
Some of the proposals at first glance appear radical, including the adoption of plain packaging for confectionery and other unhealthy products. Crucially, this does not limit choice; people are still freely able to buy whatever they want and is quite frankly not dissimilar to more traditional sweet shops where goods were displayed in see-through jars and paper bags. However, it does level the playing field with healthier products which do not benefit from enormous advertising budgets.
Other proposals include: compelling the largest supermarket chains to invest in community cooking classes to equip communities with the skills they need to live healthier life; ending the practice of disposing of aesthetically unpleasing fruit and vegetables through distributing the produce to schools; and expanding the sugar levy to generate funds that can be invested into physical education and local sports facilities.
These are the first steps that we need to take to build a healthier society. This is not a call for the food industry to be ostracised, but one arguing they shoulder a fair burden of corporate responsibility to promote healthier alternatives for their consumer base. This isn’t a big ask – this is the framework for a new social contract between the people, business and government with the aim of building a healthier, fairer society.
We need a new prevention strategy and quickly if we are to address the obesity crisis. Through changing the environment in which we purchase and consume food, we can go a long way in improving lifestyles and giving people the opportunity and ability to make important changes for their own wellbeing.
Dean Hochlaf is a Researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)