New Government obesity strategy launched
The Government has today announced a package of measures aiming to reduce the prevalence of obesity.
The measures include:
- The expansion of NHS England weight services aiming to support more people to lose weight.
- Legislation making calorie labelling on menus for food and drinks in cafes, restaurants, bars and takeaways compulsory for all businesses with more than 250 employees (following a consultation in 2018)
- Legislation to restrict promotions on foods high in fat, salt or sugar, for example ‘buy one get one free’ offers. There will also be a ban on these items being displayed in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts or shop entrances.
- New laws banning the advertising of food high in fat, sugar or salt on television and online before 9pm, when children are most likely to see them. (The subject of a consultation in 2019). Ahead of this, the government will also hold a new short consultation on whether the ban on online adverts for foods high in fat, salt or sugar, should apply at all times of day.
- A new health promotion campaign from Public Health England (PHE): Better health - lets do this! The Better Health website will provide information and free tools to support people to lose weight, alongside a new NHS 12-week weight loss app.
- The launch of two new consultations; one on front-of-pack nutrition labelling and another on calorie labelling on alcohol.
Why has this initiative been announced now?
We have had high levels of obesity in the UK for some time, and there have been a number of Government strategies aiming to address this, with a focus on childhood obesity. However, the health risks associated with obesity have been brought into sharp focus by the coronavirus pandemic. Alongside the continued aim of tackling childhood obesity these initiatives aim to encourage adults to lose weight.
A recent report from PHE concluded that, compared to people of healthy weight, people who were overweight or obese had a higher risk of being hospitalised and needing more intensive treatment due to COVID-19, as well as a higher risk of dying from COVID-19. Therefore, it is particularly important to try to reduce levels of overweight and obesity to help the NHS cope with the ongoing effects of COVID-19, as well as the other health effects of obesity including higher risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer.
Will these measures reduce obesity?
The rise in obesity we have seen in recent decades is related to major changes in our environment and the way we live, where energy dense foods are readily available and it’s very easy to be inactive. Therefore, tackling obesity effectively requires many changes to make it easier to eat healthily and be active and this is not something that is quick or easy to fix.
The measures announced today tackle some aspects of our ‘obesogenic environment’. Evidence shows that marketing influences children’s food preferences and choices and so the restrictions on promotion and advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar may help people consume less of these. Providing calories on menus for food sold in cafes, restaurants and takeaways provides people with more information to make healthier choices, and there is some evidence that this may encourage people to choose meals with fewer calories.
The support for people who want to lose weight from the NHS England and PHE initiatives is welcome. However, given the scale of the problem, it is likely that further action across many different areas will be needed. This includes tackling the socioeconomic inequalities that we know are associated with risk of obesity, especially in light of the serious economic effects of the COVID-19 outbreak.
We know that, for people who are obese, losing even a relatively small amount of weight can significantly benefit health. We don’t know exactly what effect weight loss would have on COVID-19 outcomes, but losing 5-10% of body weight can significantly improve health markers such as blood cholesterol, blood pressure and blood glucose control.
Obesity stigma is prevalent in our society and it is important that any measures to help people lose weight don’t make this worse. Indeed, one of the reasons cited in the PHE report for the link between obesity and COVID-19 is that people living with obesity are likely to delay seeking medical help because of the discrimination they can face in healthcare settings. The reasons why people develop obesity are complex, and are not simply due to lack of willpower or motivation. Losing weight, and especially keeping it off, is very challenging and people need effective support to help them do this, in order to improve our health as a nation.
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