Ministers have been warned that their efforts to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis are likely to fail because the public is constantly “bombarded” with unhealthy food options.
Britain has one of the highest obesity rates in Europe, with two in three overweight or obese adults and the NHS spending £ 6bn a year to treat health problems related to it. obesity, a figure expected to reach £ 10 billion a year by 2050. The government has announced plans to introduce a 9 p.m. turn on television and a ban on paid online advertising for food and drink unhealthy, as well as new restrictions on the promotion of unhealthy foods and beverages in retail stores and online.
However, a damning 28-page report, commissioned by the government’s own obesity research unit and viewed by the Guardian, warns those efforts will fail unless much broader action is urgently taken to transform the whole food environment.
The study, carried out by the Center for Food Policy at City University of London, found that the easy access and availability of unhealthy food around the clock across the UK makes weight loss ‘difficult’ for millions of people who try. “People engaged in weight management reported eating more simply because food was always readily available and this close and constant exposure made them want food more often,” the review found.
“People also reported that being met everywhere with promotions made it very difficult not to think about food or make unforeseen purchases from HFSS. [high in fat, salt or sugar] food.”
Even Britons who are “really trying” to lose weight are “frustrated in their efforts” because of the amount of unhealthy food they encounter each day. Experts from City University have undertaken the review for the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR) Obesity Policy Research Unit, which commissions independent research to brief ministers.
The review concludes that even well-designed weight management services will have only a “limited impact” on Britain’s long-term efforts to promote and maintain weight loss if ministers fail to improve the food environment at the same time.
Kimberley Neve, lead author of the review, said: “This review not only highlights how difficult it is to lose weight in Britain and keep it off, but also that it is not. not just willpower or self-control: even people who try really hard are thwarted in their efforts by unhealthy food options that are everywhere – they are easy to find, cheap to buy, quick and appealing.
The review found that the relatively lower cost of unhealthy food options made weight management “especially difficult” for low-income people, with unhealthy foods more likely to be promoted and offered in stores and supermarkets. .
“With Christmas treats galore in supermarkets and New Year’s resolutions around the corner, the narrative has to change so that instead of following the usual January diet, people are asking for a food environment that helps them. to be healthy, ”said Neve. , Research Assistant for Food Systems Workflow and Policy Analysis in the Obesity Policy Research Unit at NIHR at the City University Center for Food Policy. “For that, you need a policy to level the playing field for the industry to start making changes.”
Experts not involved in the review said its findings were incredibly striking.
Jane DeVille-Almond, President of the British Obesity Society, said: “Almost every activity we encounter outside of our homes today involves our senses being bombarded with food aromas. The sad fact is that many of these foods are considered bad food choices, especially if we are trying to lose weight or eat healthier.
Britain must “lead the changes” in the food environment if it is to become healthier, she said. “Theaters, recreation and activity centers, hospitals, workspaces, supermarkets and grocery stores all need to work to provide and promote healthy and tasty choices.
Caroline Cerny, head of the alliance at the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), said the review showed Britain’s obesity crisis to be “much less about individual behavior and unwillingness “and” much more about the environment around us “. She added: “The UK’s health problems reflect an environment inundated with unhealthy food and drink. “
A separate OHA report released earlier this year said Britons are exposed to an “obesogenic environment” from birth, “an environment in which high-calorie and low-nutrient foods are accessible, abundant, affordable and standardized and where opportunities for physical activity are not integrated into everyday life.
The new study found that people often offer diets, but shops, supermarkets, advertising on public transport and workplaces can keep them from going about their routine.
“The ubiquity and appeal of unhealthy foods means that people who are actively trying to lose or maintain weight have to avoid certain parts of the food environment – a certain aisle in the supermarket, the canteen at work, or the party. ‘a friend – to be able to adhere to a healthy diet. food plans, ”he said.
“The government’s attempts to solve this problem with further restrictions on the marketing of junk food in 2022 are a positive first step,” Cerny said. “But we need a lot more, including levies on the food industry to encourage them to produce healthier products.”
Ministers are invited to accept seven policy recommendations. These include changing the balance in the UK food environment so that there are more discounts on healthier foods such as fruits and vegetables. Businesses should also be helped to “provide healthier options in the workplace” for employees, and fast food outlets should be encouraged to sell healthy options, the journal urges.
Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum, said similar measures were advocated a decade ago, but ministers failed to act. “The government accountability agreement launched in 2011 was an attempt to tackle all issues related to HFSS foods and was accepted by food companies as long as it was exempt from regulation. The government refused to legislate and the agreement was broken. Researchers’ requests must now be mandated – neither if nor but. “
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Affairs said: “As part of our obesity strategy to make the country fit and healthy, we are introducing mandatory calorie labeling in large restaurants. , coffees and take-out, limiting the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. aired on television before 9 p.m. and in pay-per-view ads online, as well as curtail promotions of less healthy foods in stores and online.
‘In addition, we have invested £ 70million in adult weight management services made available through the NHS and counseling, so people with obesity have access to support that can help them cope. losing weight.
“The Office for Improving Health and Disparities will build on our national efforts to fight obesity, improve mental health and promote physical activity.”