The UK government’s long-awaited food strategy, announced this week, has been widely criticised, including by its own food adviser. It comes in the same week that the charity Diabetes UK announced that the number of children being treated at paediatric diabetes units has risen by more than 50% in five years and that children living in deprived areas are disproportionately affected by diabetes. Other recent research suggests that, if current overweight and obesity trends continue, the number of UK adults who are overweight or obese may reach around 70% of the population. It is surely folly to continue as we are in our approach to obesity. It cannot be left solely – or even primarily – to individual choice and tinkering around the edges of existing policies and approaches. Something more radical than a half-hearted initiative like this food strategy is now required – a collective approach to obesity, led by and including an active, interventionist role for government – if we are going to prevent a public health disaster in the decades to come.
The new food strategy repeats ambitious health targets. It says that the government will seek to halve childhood obesity by 2030, reducing the healthy life expectancy (HLE) gap between local areas where it is highest and lowest by 2030, adding 5 years to HLE by 2035 and reducing the proportion of the population living with diet-related illnesses; and to support this, increasing the proportion of healthier food sold.
However, the evidence is stacking up that we are simply failing to meet the obesity challenge: many of the numbers are either improving far too slowly or actually heading in the wrong direction. Take recent research from the charity Cancer Research UK, suggesting that more than 21 million UK adults will be obese by 2040, 36% of the UK adult population (36%) and that, if current overweight and obesity trends continue, the number of UK adults who are overweight or obese may reach around 70% of the population – 42 million people
The food strategy acknowledges that “poor diet has led to a growing problem of obesity, particularly among children.” It also says that “there is more that must be done in future with government and industry working in partnership on a shared endeavour to promote healthier diets.”
However, many critics argue that the government is simply not ambitious enough in its approach. Henry Dimbleby, who is the government’s food adviser and who published a National Food Strategy in 2020, said that the new policy document is not detailed enough to be called a strategy: “It doesn’t set out a clear vision as to why we have the problems we have now and it doesn’t set out what needs to be done.”
Some of Dimbleby’s recommendations that are particularly applicable to children have been ignored or watered down in the food strategy. For example:
Some critics argue that the government is failing to act decisively for ideological reasons – the belief that it is not acceptable – and indeed a denial of our basic freedoms – for government to ‘interfere’ in people’s lives by instructing them on things like what they can and cannot eat. Those sympathetic to this view often refer to ‘the nanny state’ in this context. For them, individual choice must be at the heart of any obesity strategy.
The question is: is it enough? Sir Michael Marmot, a leading authority on public health, is one of those who has called for the government to play a more interventionist role, echoing a point made by Dimbleby in his National Food Strategy:
We’re agreed the government has an important role in health. There is an important debate as to where it starts and stops, and people will put the dividing line between government action and individual responsibility in different places.Sir Michael Marmot, quoted in The Guardian
None of us wants the government telling us what we have for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but we’re all pretty pleased that we can check into a hotel room or send our children to a school and know there is no asbestos. We want the government to do that. We’re pretty pleased when we turn on the tap and the water is drinkable. We don’t want to have to contact a helpline first.
But if we are all making individual choices, how come obesity rates are rising? Is each of us making the individual choice to be overweight or obese?
When you see a societal trend like that and say the government shouldn’t get in the way because people are making their individual choices, my guess is that if you asked people, would you like to get diabetes, or heart disease, to increase your risk of cancer by a third, they would say, no, of course not. People aren’t putting on weight because they want to.
The new food strategy also repeats promises made in the government’s recent levelling-up white paper about food and healthy eating in schools. As we have already suggested, talk of sparking a “school cooking revolution” and a “healthier food culture” sounds exciting; food information posted on school websites and an aspiration for every school-leaver to be able to cook six healthy recipes less so.
Overall, there is a lack of vision and ambition:
This (ie £5 million to deliver a school cooking revolution) includes developing brand new materials for the curriculum and finding opportunities for children and young people to better understand sustainable food and its connection to nature. We will support teachers and school leadership, recognising their crucial role in teaching the value of healthy and sustainable diets, and we will consider insights from Ofsted’s forthcoming research review into design and technology to support the teaching of cooking and nutrition.from the government’s new food strategy
We have consistently argued that, as a society, we need to rethink how we tackle obesity. We cannot go on as we are. Life-Based Learning is about reimagining education so that we focus on the massive life challenges we face.
Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge. As the various statistics highlighted above (and many, many others) demonstrate, we cannot continue as we are. Something more ambitious and radical is required.
Education is important so that people have the knowledge and skills to make informed individual choices around healthy lifestyles – what to eat, whether to exercise and so on. But it also needs a collective effort, with government driving forward significant changes in how we educate our children and young people. We need to rethink. We need to change our common frame of reference so that healthy lifestyles become an urgent priority.
Image at the head of this article by Pintera Studio from Pixabay.