Tackling the obesity crisis

the obesity crisis

If you have eaten out in the last few days, you may have noticed a change to the menu, specifically the addition of information about calories. It is one of two new public health interventions announced in the last week. The second is (draft) amended guidance on how we should monitor our weight. As measures that help to empower people to look after their physical health, these are small but nevertheless welcome steps. However, any serious plan to tackle the obesity crisis must be comprehensive and ambitious. The LBL view is that transforming children’s education needs to be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving the physical wellbeing of the population. And the approach needs to be proactive rather than reactive, with both food education and sport and physical activity as core elements.

Calorie information

First, the calorie counts. The new rule means that food and drink businesses in England with 250 or more employees must display the calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks. This is not something completely new; some well-known businesses, Wetherspoons and McDonald’s for example, have been doing this for some time.

It is worth noting that not everyone supports the change. Some business leaders have objected to the cost of new labelling at a time when the hospitality sector is still trying to recover from the Covid pandemic. There is also concern from eating disorder charities that publishing calorie information can cause anxiety and distress for people affected by eating disorders and actually worsen their behaviour.

Meanwhile, the Masterchef winner Sven-Hanson Britt tweeted his concern that the measure will come at the expense of creativity and spontaneity:

Kids will grow up in restaurants, hotels and cafes only looking at that little number below a dish. Choices will be made based on a number alone. The love of flavour, ingredients, history, cooking craft or nutrition will be lost and masked by a newly perceived focus.

Masterchef winner Sven-Hanson Britt, quoted on the BBC website

New draft guidance from NICE

Meanwhile, new draft guidance from NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, says that people should measure their waist to check that they are not carrying too much dangerous fat around their middle.

Many people currently monitor their body mass index (BMI), which is calculated using height and overall body weight. However, though useful, BMI does not take account of excess weight around the abdomen, which increases the risk of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke. NICE says that an adult’s waist should be less than half their height to reduce health risks.

The obesity crisis

Notwithstanding the criticisms and concerns about the new calorie-information rule noted above, any measure that increases the amount of easy-to-understand information that people have access to, thus enabling them to make more informed choices about their lifestyle, is arguably a step forward. In a recent blog we talked about the potential benefits of supermarket sustainability leagues tables for consumers who are looking to live more sustainably.

However, measures such as these are by no means enough. David Buck, who works for the King’s Fund, an independent charitable organisation working to improve health and care in England, wrote the following in a July 2020 blog. By way of context, it is perhaps worth noting that this was written during the first wave of the Covid pandemic, not long after the prime minister had briefly been in intensive care, following which he (the prime minister) was reported to have become much more receptive to the idea of state-directed intervention to address the issue of obesity.

The tendency for government strategies to over-rely on interventions that arm the public with information and individualised support, however well designed … needs to be avoided. Public information campaigns are rarely effective on their own … The science is increasingly clear that it is changes in the living environment – such as the design of our streets, exposure to advertising and density of fast food outlets – that are shaping everybody’s behaviour and making it much harder for us all to be a healthy weight.

from the blog Obesity: time for action by David Buck of the King’s Fund

Statistics published by the House of Commons Library in March 2022 indicate that 28% of adults in England are obese and a further 36.2% are overweight but not obese – that’s more than half the total adult population. Obesity is usually defined as having a BMI of 30 or above. BMI between 25 and 30 is classified as ‘overweight’.

It goes on to report that 14.4% of reception age children (age 4–5) are obese, with a further 13.3% overweight. At age 10–11, 25.5% are obese and 15.4% overweight. These figures are a significant increase on the previous year, when 9.9% of children aged 4–5 and 21% of children aged 10–11 were obese. It also states that children living in deprived areas are substantially more likely to be obese.

Life-Based Learning and physical health and wellbeing

Life-Based Learning (LBL) aims to prepare children and young people for the challenges of modern life. One of the most important challenges is the ability to manage our physical health. LBL offers an approach to looking after our children and young people that not only addresses acute and immediate problems but also puts in place a bold strategy to promote future wellbeing.

In blogs such as Ready Steady Cook! Empowering children to eat healthily we have argued that food education and healthy eating must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving children’s physical wellbeing.

The LBL approach organises learning around three elements:

  • knowledge
  • knowhow
  • practice

The LBL approach makes life itself the primary purpose of the learning, integrating the subjects of the traditional curriculum into nine life-learning themes. The Body is one of the nine themes:

  • learning about the body itself — knowledge
  • learning how to look after the body — knowhow
  • applying the knowledge and knowhow — practice

A Body learning programme would include teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating as well as helping them to learn the basics of how to cook healthy meals. It would also include a full programme of sport and physical activity.

Read More About Diet and Food Education

Image at the head of this article by JOSE ARROYO from Pixabay.

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