Health Policy
Helping the country lose weight

By David Forrest - Integrated Care Journal

The Government has announced a wide range of different rules and regulations to try and encourage the UK to lose weight. These include new labelling systems for food, restrictions on junk food adverts, ending unhealthy food promotion in shops and encouraging social prescribing.

The UK is currently facing an obesity crisis. Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight or obese and, most worryingly, one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year.

Research shows that nearly eight per cent of critically ill patients in intensive care units with Covid-19 are morbidly obese, compared with 2.9 per cent of the general population. This has prompted the Government to act and try to mitigate the risk of overwhelming the NHS in the event of a second Covid-19 spike.


What is the strategy?

  • A ban on advertising food that is high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) on television and online before 9pm. This action has received support from the World Health Organisation (WHO)  
    • Analysis published by Cancer Research UK from September 2019 shows that almost half (47.6 per cent) of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for HFSS products. This rises to almost 60 per cent during the 6pm to 9pm slot – the time slot where children’s viewing peaks.
  • A ban on ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOF) promotions for HFSS products. There will also be a ban on HFSS products being placed in prominent locations in stores, such as checkouts and entrances and online.
    • 43 per cent of all food and drink products that had been placed in prominent areas were HFSS products compared to just one per cent for healthy items. Shops will also be encouraged to promote healthier choices by offering a discount on food like fruit and vegetables.
  • Restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees will be required to add calories labels to the food they sell.
    • This enables people to make healthier and more informed choices as part of a balanced diet.
  • A new consultation will be launched before the end of the year on plans to provide calorie labelling on alcohol.
    • Alcohol consumption is estimated to make up ten per cent of the calorie intake of those who drink. Around 3.4 million adults are consuming an additional day's worth of calories each week when drinking, totalling an extra two months of food each year.
  • NHS weight management services will also be expanded providing more support for those who need to lose weight. There will also be more self-care apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions, along with the acceleration of the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme.
    • From next year, doctors will be offered incentives to ensure people living with obesity are given support for weight loss, and primary care staff will also have the opportunity to become ‘healthy weight coaches’ though training delivered by Public Health England. Separately, General Practitioners (GP) will also be encouraged to prescribe exercise and more social activities to help people keep fit.
  • A consultation on a traffic light labelling system for food. There is already support for this form of labelling system with 90 per cent of consumers agreeing it helps them make informed decisions when purchasing food.

How has it been received?

The Government's actions to tackle the obesity crisis in the UK have received mixed reactions. On the one hand, the Government has been praised for the way it has acted. Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health Englan, commented: “These bold measures will help us tip the scales on obesity. ”  

The Health Secretary Matt Hancock expanded on Dr Tedstone's argument on why the Government has decided to act commenting: “obesity increases the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus. ”  Mr Hancock hopes that the new legislation to tackle obesity will help “protect the NHS and improve our nation’s health. ”

However, Dr Layla McCay, Director at the NHS Confederation, has argued there is still more the Government has to do: “The Government will need to continue to support services and their staff during what is expected to be a challenging period. ” Whilst the Government has given more powers to those in primary care, such as the ability for GPs to recommend exercise to lose weight, Dr McCay argues that the Government needs to “recognise any additional workload on primary care”  to avoid the risk of overworking the primary care sector during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Adam Briggs, a Senior Policy Fellow at the Health Foundation, commented that the announcement "includes some positive steps to tackle obesity in the UK. ” However, he claims the Government’s strategy "is likely to be a missed opportunity. ”  Exploring the announced legislation, Mr Briggs says there is little sign of policies that will address the root causes of obesity.

Mr Briggs has also criticised the Government's delayed action against the obesity crisis commenting. “Many of today’s announcements are not new ideas," he said, "they have been included in previous childhood obesity plans but never implemented. Too much time has already been lost, we must now see decisive action. ”


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