Government launches new obesity strategy

Catherine Gaunt
Monday, July 27, 2020

A ban on junk food ads before the 9pm watershed is one of the measures being brought in by the Government to tackle ‘the ticking time bomb’ of obesity.

Ministers will also consult on proposals to help parents of young children to make healthier choices through more honest marketing and labelling of infant foods.

The move comes as the Department of Health and Social Care unveiled a new obesity strategy and a ‘Better Health’ campaign to help people lose weight.

The new measures proposed include:

  • Ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm
  • End of deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat
  • Calories to be displayed on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out – while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’

The Government said that the urgency of tackling the obesity ‘time bomb’ had been highlighted by evidence of the link to an increased risk from Covid-19.

Living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, with risk growing substantially as body mass index (BMI) increases. Nearly 8 per cent of critically ill patients with Covid-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9 per cent of the general population.

There is also strong evidence that obesity increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.

Rather than focusing primarily on childhood obesity, the Government said there would be a new focus on empowering adults to lose weight as well.

The policy paper, Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives, says, ‘Children in the most deprived parts of the country are more than twice as likely to be obese as their peers living in the richest areas. This is sowing the seeds of adult diseases and health inequalities in early childhood.’

The Government said that Public Health England’s new Better Health campaign will urge people to take stock of how they live their lives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, promoting evidence-based tools and apps with advice on how to lose weight and keep it off. 

Boris Johnson launched the strategy on Monday on social media explaining how when he was in intensive care for Covid-19 he was 'way overweight' and had lost around a stone since then. He said he starts the day running with his dog Dilyn.

'The great thing about going for a run at the beginning of the day is nothing could be worse for the rest of the day,' he said.

The Government plans were, he said, 'just trying to help people a little bit to bring their weight down – not in an excessively bossy or nannying way, I hope'.

Ahead of the strategy’s release, Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said‘We strongly welcome reports that the Government will introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising.

'We have epidemic levels of obesity in the UK and we are storing up huge problems for children and young people unless we turn things around. Nearly one in four children are overweight by age five. This is a public health time bomb and t is right that the food industry is being held to account. We have a window of opportunity to make a huge difference to our children’s health with brave, evidence-based policy.'

A ban on junk food advertising on tubes and buses was brought in by London Mayor Sadiq Khan last year.

Welcoming the strategy, he said, 'I am pleased the Government is at long last supporting the measures we have been taking from City Hall to address obesity. 

'Since taking office I have worked hard to help make London a place where everyone has the support they need to maintain a healthy weight – we have introduced world leading measures including a ban on adverts for unhealthy food and drinks on the transport network.

'I’m glad the Government is finally following London’s lead and taking this issue seriously by introducing these measures, which will help protect lives and support our economic recovery.

'Ministers should now go further and extend the sugar tax to cover food and drinks which do the most harm to our health.'

However, some commentators were more sceptical of the plans.

June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation, said,  ‘Whilst we welcome the Prime Minister’s revised obesity plan – especially the ban on HFSS [high in fat, sugar and salt] advertising on TV and online before 9pm – it’s imperative that nutrition standards in Early Years are also mandated and that chefs are properly taught how to cook nutritious food, like in our Chef Academy.

‘It’s unacceptable that some nurseries are inadvertently adding to the obesity problem by serving meals dangerously high in fat, salt and sugar – and we therefore need a radical wake up. Every parent wants to know that their child is getting tasty, healthy food and they need reassurance that the standards are of the highest quality.’

On Twitter, Dr Natalie Shenker said, ‘Does anyone believe that an #obesity strategy without including a set of early years policies will help? 23% of reception age children overweight or obese. 34% by yr 6. Early years set a trajectory. Where is the conversation around prevention?’

Professor Judith Buttriss, director general of the British Nutrition Foundation said, ‘While concerns over the prevalence of obesity among young people has led to a focus on factors that influence children’s diets and activity habits, Covid-19 has shown us that we need to do more now to tackle adult obesity, alongside initiatives targeted at promoting a healthy lifestyle in children.’  

The measures were ‘a step in the right direction’, there was ‘no quick fix’.

‘The progressive rise in obesity 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,' she said.

‘To tackle obesity effectively we also need to address 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 that are expected to be with us for some time.’ 

She also warned that any measures introduced must not stigmatise obesity. 

‘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 long-term.’

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