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UK obesity policy fails – it costs too much to be healthy

Matty Ennis / YJI

Maghull, UK – In yet another example of the government rushing new policy through without consulting experts, the UK’s new obesity strategy – championed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson – could do more harm than good.

Though many are pleased to see action finally being taken on the problem, it seems that it doesn’t go far enough to tackle the social issues at the core of the UKs growing health crisis.

There is also widespread concern over the implications the new measures, which have yet to go into effect, may have on those with eating disorders as well as contributing to emerging disorders.

The strategy includes a ban on adverts for unhealthy food before 9 p.m., an end to deals like ‘buy one get one free’ and the introduction of calories being displayed clearly on menus as well as a new ‘Better Health’ app.

Bizarrely, this announcement came just three days before the launch of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme that encourages people to support the economy by getting up to 50% off food in establishments including McDonalds and KFC during August, leading many to question the comprehensiveness of the strategy.

With 63% of adults overweight and 1 in 3 children leaving primary school overweight, obesity is an egregious problem in our country that costs the National Health Service £6 billion ($7.8 billion USD) a year, according to Gov.UK, the government’s official website in the UK.

The profound effect of covid-19 on those who are overweight cemented this. The plump prime minister himself was admitted to intensive care for a week in May.

It seems that contracting the virus served as a wakeup call for Johnson, who has made a significant U-turn on the topic after previously dismissing the problem.

Perhaps this explains his impulsive response to the obesity crisis.

The strategy serves as another example of the current government’s convention of releasing seemingly ill-advised plans that are rushed through before considering the implications or talking to experts in the field.

While measures like restricting advertising will undeniably help some people make better choices, health experts in the field of obesity are exasperated by how the strategy ignores the much bigger issue of changing eating habits and the extreme poverty in the UK that forces so many people into an unhealthy lifestyle.

For single parent families – and two-parent families that rely on a second income to survive – there’s fewer households with someone at home preparing meals for the family.

Longer working hours and worries over fuel bills contribute to the situation.

With less time to cook, people turned to processed foods that hold little nutrition. With these convenient foods now so readily available, it’s easier than ever to rely on them.

After years of austerity, low income households cannot afford healthy food, which is more costly, or the means to prepare it, leaving them with no option other than processed food.

It is also much harder for those in deprived areas to exercise. Many cannot afford a gym membership but also lack rural areas with appropriate conditions for outdoor exercise. The government recently introduced a scheme that allows members of the public to receive a voucher worth up to £50 towards the cost of repairing a bike but those who cannot afford to properly feed their children cannot even consider the cost of buying or repairing a bike.

For many in the UK, it is simply too expensive to be healthy.

It doesn’t matter how aware people are of the calories in their food if they simply cannot afford any healthy alternatives.

Research by Tim Lobstein, policy director at the London-based World Obesity Federation, illustrated this by calculating the cost of 100 calories worth of different foods. He found that highly processed chips would cost just 2 pence while the same amount of broccoli would cost a shocking 51 pence.

This is indicative of a growing disparity between the rich and the poor in the UK that leaves the less affluent with increasingly poor health.

In a study by the World Health Organization known as “the Glasgow Effect,” the life expectancy in Calton, a deprived part of Glasgow, Scotland, was 54 years while just 12 km away in Lenzie, a more affluent area, the life expectancy was 82 years.

That demonstrates how the poverty in your life can impact not only your health, but how long you’ll live.

The government cannot tackle the problem of obesity while still heavily influencing the social divide that causes the deprivation driving so many to become obese.

Many of the governments’ strategies to tackle obesity actually contribute towards this divide. The previously imposed ‘sugar tax’ as well as an end to ‘buy one get one free’ deals will only make those in deprived areas poorer.

Is Johnson’s Conservative Government completely out of touch with the people their actions affect, or do they simply not care about considering the implications of their actions as long as they are seen to be doing something about the problem?

One group of people the government hasn’t considered are those with eating disorders.

For people with anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, the new measures – like calorie counts on menus – could be extremely harmful.

Andrew Radford, chief executive of Beat, a charity focused on helping people with eating disorders, condemned the action in a statement published on the organization’s website.

Radford said it is “worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling, as evidence clearly shows that these risk exacerbating eating disorders” and that instead “there should be attention to the complex causes of obesity.”

Radford also said Better Health, the government’s weight loss app, is not suitable for children or underweight people, but that there’s nothing to prevent them from using it.

According to Beat, the UK did not consult with any eating disorder experts before creating the strategy, despite being asked specifically to do so by Beat, so it is understandable that so many feel let down and angry.

Though it is acceptable that Johnson and his government are not experts on every issue, they cannot be forgiven for refusing to contact those who are before publishing a strategy that will affect so many.

Rather than churning out sensational headlines with little thought behind them, it is clear that comprehensive action needs to be taken to end the problem of obesity.

This means talking to experts and gathering evidence that can support meaningful action. This could include educating people on nutrition and how to make healthy meals on a budget, understanding the relationship between mental health and weight, spreading awareness about exercise and allowing children and adults to find enjoyable activities that work for them.

Most importantly, the government must begin to examine the complex causes of obesity that have their roots in much wider problems such as austerity and the abhorrent poverty gap that robs citizens of their health.

Matty Ennis is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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