Thursday, 17 March 2016

Obesity: many perspectives, no magic solution

Lorraine McSweeney, Research Associate, Newcastle University

To coincide with Nutrition and Hydration week Lorraine reports back from the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum.

On the 9 March I attended a Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum titled: ‘Next Steps on Policy for Obesity - Prevention, Sugar Consumption and Priorities for Children’s Health’. The original purpose of the forum was to discuss the Government’s childhood obesity strategy. However, as publicised in the Guardian on the 26 February, this has been delayed; with the Department of Health calling it a ‘complicated issue’ that they want to ensure is a ‘game changing moment’. Despite the strategy delay the forum went ahead to allow ‘experts’ in the field to share ideas and possible approaches for the strategy.

Speakers and panel members were a diverse group ranging from Public Health England (PHE); School Food Plan; Southampton Health and Wellbeing Board; Children’s Food Trust; ukactive kids; Family Lives; primary care; Advertising Standard’s Authority; British Retail Consortium; Kantar World Panel; Food and Drink Federation; and London Food Board… the list goes on...

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PHE stated that the average diet in the UK is poor with too much saturated fat and sugar and too little fibre, fruit and vegetables. This is having a knock-on effect on our children, with one in five primary school kids overweight or obese, by the time children leave primary school, this figure rises to one in three. Contrary to popular belief, this is not just an issue of poverty; obesity is happening in both the most and least affluent areas. We are bombarded with opportunities to eat 24 hours a day and there are many drivers to buy and eat. Advertising and sponsorship, which some people don’t associate with advertising, can have a negative impact on child health.

The Chief Executive Officer from the Children’s Food Trust argued that good food should be a part of a child’s life from day one, right through their life. Food should not be tailored to be ‘child-friendly’. Children should be encouraged to eat smaller portions of adult food and should not be targeted by the food industries. Parents need to be listened to and families should be helped to cook more.

The need to get children moving more was discussed and included comments about modern life not encouraging children to be active; and schools too scared to work with parents and tell them how to keep their children active. It was stated that only a third of children enjoy sports and other solutions need to be encouraged. The primary care representative felt that too many patients are being treated with the consequences of obesity. She believes that primary care professionals are missing opportunities to discuss weight with parents; however, GPs reported not wanting to cause offence and felt they did not have the time to deal with the issues.

An overarching theme from the ‘health’ representatives was that prevention is key and that the food industry was part of the problem and should be involved in solving the problem. We were informed that in an average supermarket consumers have 30,000 products to choose from and consumer change is very hard to drive.

The impact of volume of sales of products such as sugar and bread, which have no immediate substitute, are shown not to be affected by price rise. The introduction of a sugar tax was highly debated; some felt it would not change consumer behaviour, whilst others argued it would offer one solution. However, following the success of the reformulation of products to reduce salt and saturated fat, it was agreed that the reformulation of products containing sugar could be a way forward. However, representatives from the food and drink industries stated that sugars would be more difficult as it has a structural function in food.

In addition, if a product was made ‘healthier’ consumers may be inclined to eat more of the product but it was agreed that alongside reformulation, portion size control could be beneficial. There was much discussion of whether legislation should be enforced on food and drink companies – the representatives believed that due to diversity of companies, a voluntary approach was better. However, it was argued that ‘if consumers continued to make incorrect choices – legislation was all that was left’.

As you can see from this very brief summary, obesity continues to be a very complex issue; it was thought-provoking to hear the different perspectives from health, policy, practice and industry. However, the discussions emphasised the point that there is no magic solution; the publication of the Government’s childhood obesity strategy is eagerly awaited.

Photo attribution:, Santo Chino, "McLympics":

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