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Obesity – unfit solutions to a weighty problem


In the UK, as across much of the world, we are eating too much unhealthy food. So much so, that a third of children and well over half of adults are overweight or obese, costing the NHS over £5bn a year. The standard government response to such startling figures is to produce a shiny new strategy or action plan. This is invariably disowned as soon as a new political party comes to power, creating an unvirtuous circle whereby there’s lots of earnest talk about how to tackle obesity but precious little action.

Action on obesity?

The latest addition to the series – ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’ – was published by Theresa May’s new government over the summer. At just 13 pages the plan is surprisingly concise for a self-proclaimed ‘world leading’ strategy. And while it proposes some bold new measures including a levy on the sale of sugary drinks and a target to reduce the amount of sugar in food products by 20%, the plan is just as notable for what is absent. Contrary to recommendations from the Government’s own public health agency, there are no new rules for restricting the marketing of junk foods to children, nor are there plans in place to tackle widespread supermarket promotions that encourage shoppers to make unhealthy choices.

Family supermarket shopping. A mother looks at cakes and other baked products with her children. © Richard Stonehouse / WWFFamily supermarket shopping. A mother looks at cakes and other baked products with her children. © Richard Stonehouse / WWF

Reflections from the Childhood Obesity Summit

Earlier this month I attended a conference at the Royal Society where the details of the plan were discussed and the challenges around tackling obesity were debated. A few things struck me:

• Firstly, there is lots of agreement that no one measure will successfully reduce obesity levels, but no consensus on what the multiple measures that are needed should be. It was suggested that we need a marginal gains approach to tackling obesity as practiced so successfully by the British cycling team whereby the combination of lots of small actions amounts to an overall improvement in outcome. This sounds great in theory, but without agreement on what these specific actions are we’ll be struggling to get off the start line.

• I was, however, encouraged by a rejection of the popular theory that simply getting people to exercise more is the solution to obesity. In fact, the evidence suggests that exercise will make little difference without tackling poor diet.

• The view that we simply need to encourage people to make better dietary choices was also dismissed as misguided. People do not make choices in a vacuum. On the contrary, our choices are largely shaped by the environments in which we live.

• Which brings me to my final thought. There are lots of proposals in the government’s obesity plan for how we can change demand for unhealthy food, but little or nothing on how we must also change its supply. This is surely a mistake. The two cannot be separated, or you are left with a perverse situation, as will soon be the case in England, where the production of sugar is heavily subsidised by the taxpayer whilst at the same time consumption of sugar is taxed. There is no consistency in such an approach. An obesity strategy will not be effective if is counterbalanced by an agricultural strategy that incentivises the production of cheap, unhealthy foods.

Field of sugarbeet in Norfolk © Greg Armfield/WWF-UKField of sugarbeet in Norfolk © Greg Armfield/WWF-UK

A joined-up food plan

At WWF we think of food in terms of the entire system from farm to fork and try to find solutions to food system challenges that benefit both people and the planet and create prosperity for all. Regardless of your view on Brexit the UK now is the chance to create a food policy that supports the production and consumption of healthy, sustainable food. But to do so we must break out of our silos and join the various dots so that all government departments, as well as businesses, academics and campaigners are working towards a common goal.

The obesity battle can be won, but it won’t be won with warm words and silver bullets. And it most definitely won’t be won by treating obesity as a singular, discrete problem, rather than the product of a failing system. We need a coherent, ambitious plan to fix the fault lines in our food system and ensure everyone has access to a nutritious diet. In short, we need a plan that is worthy of the name.

Read more about WWF-UK’s work on food.

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