‘The Fat man of Europe’ – that’s what the WHO called us last year (the World Health Organisation, not Roger Daltrey). Overeating and poor diet. Lack of health literacy. Not enough time for exercise and a rise in sedentary lifestyles. These are just some of the reasons cited for the rise in the obesity ‘epidemic’, but although various initiatives have sought to reduce the nation’s waistband, people are generally still consuming too much of everything. The problem is not simply anecdotal. Just consider some of the facts:
- A third of us eat junk food once a day.
- Those of us with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) has decreased over the past 20 years from 41 per cent to 32 per cent among men, and from 49.5 per cent to 41 per cent among women.
- The National Obesity Observatory report that ten per cent of adults eat less than a single portion of fruit and vegetables per day, with less than a third of adults currently meeting the ’five a day’ target for fruit and vegetables
- Children on average eat 42 packets of biscuits a year.
- The NHS is spending £5 billion a year treating various consequences of obesity, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, cancer and hip and knee joint replacements. Estimates predict that it will reach £15 billion within a few decade, and that the cost to the wider economy is at least £16 billion.
To adapt a familiar wartime slogan: “Careless eating cost lives” – the title of 2020health’s latest report.
It’s not that we haven’t known. The seminal Labour ‘Foresight Report’ of 2007, which set out to answer the question ‘How can we deliver a sustainable response to obesity over the next 40 years?’ and the almost weekly press coverage of an obesity related story and associated rising costs mean that no one can claim ignorance – but the lack of action for what is a national crisis (as opposed to ebola) is astonishing. It is, according to some, the greatest threat to the nation’s health and possibly economic security.
It is, according to some, the greatest threat to the nation’s health  and possibly economic security .
So what to do? Obesity is more than just a physical issue to be addressed by the latest recommended diet. It is much more complex, because it underpins how we live our daily lives, the environment in which we live and work, and how we feel about ourselves.
A culture of blame – of affluent people telling others to take responsibility, of demonizing business, of singling out ingredients does not lead to sustainable solutions. It is only when the bigger picture is taken into consideration, and a wide range of organisations and individuals become involved, that we will really begin to address the obesity challenge. The Foresight Report recognized this and asked for a portfolio of policies to lead the charge.
‘Careless eating costs lives’ provides this portfolio – which is vital as there is no single villain. It also recognises that there are initiatives in place on which we can build, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that only voluntary effort will bring about the systemic changes required to defeat the big beast.
The Responsibility Deal, brought in by the Coalition Government, has helped to make a good start in involving business and manufacturers. Progress has been made, and those businesses which have signed up to delivering on their pledges should be commended for their commitment to playing their part and taking their responsibility as food producers seriously.
But if the scale of the problem is to be addressed effectively, the Deal needs to be built upon and developed further. In a similar way to the phasing-in of the Disability Discrimination Act over a number of years so that businesses could adapt and introduce necessary changes to their work practices, the Responsibility Deal needs to be transformed into a legislative framework which is phased in over the next five to ten years.
Alongside this, we need to restrict the number of fast food outlets; know from every café and restaurant menus just how many calories are in this KFC bucket or that frappuccino; have a universal, clear system of food-labelling; teach cooking skills in school, and intervene early when weight is becoming a sign of an often hidden problem.
Over all this, we need to invoke an obesity test on all new legislation, asking all government departments to consider the impact of proposed policy on eating behaviour and public health to ensure it does not compound the obesity crisis. Because it is a crisis, and to do nothing, or too little, will further undermine our NHS, our economy and betray those who are not highly resourced to make it through the day past the tidal wave of empty calories.
Careless Eating costs lives can be read at www.2020health.org.
1 Doctors unite to combat obesity [BBC].
2 Obesity in national security problem [New American].