The UK government has been heavily criticised this week for its decision to delay implementing key elements of its obesity strategy aimed at discouraging people from buying unhealthy food and drinks. The government says that the delay is to allow time to assess the impact of the planned changes on the cost of living crisis. Critics, however, say that it is wrong to delay and that the government is backtracking on its obesity commitments in the face of political pressures. William Hague, former Conservative Party leader, has called it “morally reprehensible”. We cannot continue as we are in our approach to obesity. The evidence is stacking up that we are failing to meet the obesity challenge, potentially resulting in a massive public health crisis in the future. Food education and healthy eating must be at the heart of any long-term obesity strategy.
The government has announced that it is postponing two elements of its obesity strategy that discourage the eating of unhealthy food:
Restrictions on where stores can display food high in sugar or fat will still go ahead as previously announced.
Lord Hague, writing in the Times, said that the government’s anti-obesity drive “will probably join the 14 strategies and 689 different policies over the past 30 years, according to a Cambridge University study, that have failed to deliver.”
Critics of the decision, including Hague, point out that the government’s cost of living argument is a bogus one because Bogof deals do not actually make food cheaper: they simply encourage people to buy more than they need. And Henry Dimbleby, author of the National Food Strategy, said that an advertising ban would actually help reduce the cost of food because 75% of food companies’ marketing spend currently goes on junk food.
Many critics also suggest that the government is not willing to implement the obesity strategy in full because they are worried about a backlash from the electorate, from vested interests in the food industry, or from some of their own back backbenchers.
Referring to those who want to dilute the obesity strategy, Lord Hague wrote: “They are acquiescing in a future of higher dependence, greater costs, reduced lifestyle choice and endless pain. For the government to give in to them is intellectually shallow, politically weak and morally reprehensible.”
Henry Dimbleby said that the two measures were a move in the right direction on obesity:
My concern is, given that the problem [of obesity] is only getting worse, it seems an odd thing to be doing to be delaying measures that would begin to assuage some of the real horrors of the situation.Henry Dimbleby, quoted on the Today programme on Radio 4, 16 May 2022
Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy was published in July 2021. Two of its four main objectives were:
It made the scale and urgency of the problem clear and highlighted the need to put children’s education at the heart of a national food and anti-obesity strategy:
Children’s diets are not good enough. Childhood obesity rates more than double during primary school. On average, children of primary and secondary school age eat less than half of the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and no age group or income quintile meets the recommendation. The shortfall is worst in teenagers. This is not only a problem in childhood but also leads to long-term issues: a childhood diet low in fruits and vegetables is linked to increased cardiovascular risk in adults. Good nutrition and maintaining a healthy weight in childhood help prevent obesity and diet-related ill health later in life.from the National 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 an approach to education and development for children and young people in which the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – become the focus of a fully rounded, life-based approach to learning. Tackling obesity – and promoting children’s physical health and wellbeing more generally – is one such challenge.
In blogs such as Ready Steady Cook! Empowering children to eat healthily we have argued that food education and healthy eating must also be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving physical health and wellbeing.
Image at the head of this article by bohacekmarek from Pixabay.