Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the United Kingdom has launched a new Obesity strategy to fight the rising child and adult obesity problem in the country. Meanwhile, the European Union with its new Farm to Fork Strategy also has included the aim to reverse the rise in overweight and obesity rates across the EU. As global obesity and overweight has nearly tripled since 1975, countries worldwide are also taking serious measures to curb the growing problem.
The UK’s Obesity Strategy: A Response to Covid-19
The United Kingdom is among the leaders in terms of overweight population in Europe, and ranks 10th on the global scale, behind the USA, Mexico, and Chile (1st, 2nd, and 3rd place). The UK’s government has acknowledged that obesity is so far one of the biggest health crises the country is facing. The growing evidence that obesity may be a true risk factor for Covid-19 has surely prompted the urgent launch of the new strategy. Its proposed measures to promote healthier diets include such measures as: a ban on junk food advertising on TV before 9 pm and online; prohibition to sell sweets at the checkout, mandatory calorie counts on restaurant and café menus, among others.
While the strategy has long been needed, many health and civil society organizations have criticized it for failing to address underlying causes of obesity.
“These measures need to be followed up with more interventions. Our food systems must be rethought; without redesigning obesogenic environments, addressing the root causes that lead to healthy food being more expensive than ultra-processed ones, nor tackling the underlying issue of poverty, it will be extremely difficult to bring obesity rates down substantially. To do this, we need coherent and integrated policies, which will need to work together to improve multiple parts of the food system in parallel,” said Shane Holland, Executive Chairman of Slow Food in the UK.
The UK is not the only country who has taken obesity, which has been called a global epidemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), seriously. Health departments all over the world are acting to reverse these trends, as overweight and obesity are also risk factors for cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancers.
We compare the different measures taken by the UK, the EU and other countries and analyze if they can reverse the obesity epidemic.
Increasing Information to Consumers:
It remains common belief that consumers would make healthier choices if they were better informed about their food and would therefore avoid gaining weight. In other words, if we knew the number of calories in a packet of chips or in a can of soda, we would buy them less.
In line with this, both the UK and the EU’s Farm to Fork strategies propose measures to improve information to consumers. For example, the UK proposes to make it mandatory for large restaurants and cafes to provide calorie information on menus, and to provide calorie information for alcohol. Both strategies also propose to make front–of–pack nutrition labelling mandatory, in the form of a “traffic light system” (currently being used in the UK) for example.
Meanwhile, in the United States, where it is already mandatory for chain restaurants, cafes and cinemas to list calorie information on their menus, a recent study has concluded that this measure has led to a slight decrease in average number of calories being purchased in fast food restaurants. Whilst it can be difficult to make smart choices about food and nutrition without this information, by itself, improved information to consumers is not enough to fix the obesity problem.
Curbing Advertising to Children:
Another measure from the UK’s new strategy is a ban on the advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products being shown on TV and online before 9 pm, a measure which could counter children’s “pester power” (i.e. the power to nag their parents into making certain purchases). It is noteworthy that the measure targets online advertisements as well, knowing that children today are increasingly watching videos online rather than on television, as is noted by the WHO. According to an evaluation of the implementation of WHO recommendations across the WHO European Region (53 countries), only very few countries are regulating online marketing to children, although just over half of the countries have “taken steps to limit marketing of HFSS foods to children” in some way. Restrictions on advertising HFSS foods to children have also been implemented in Latin America, which is seeing alarming rates of obesity in many parts of the continent. In 2016, Chile banned advertisements for foods high in calories, added sugar, sodium, and saturated fat between 6 am and 10 pm. No such measure was presented in the EU Farm to Fork strategy.
Will banning advertisements help fight obesity? According to the Advertising Association, the answer is unsurprisingly “no”, saying this would only save a few calories per meal; yet the colossal amounts food processing companies spend on advertising and marketing say otherwise.
Changing the Food Environment:
More so than labelling and advertisements, it is the broader food environments in which we live that influence how we eat. That is to say, the availability, price, convenience, safety, labelling, and promotion of food shape how we eat, often without us realizing it.
The UK Strategy proposes a ban on “2-for-1” promotions on HFSS, a measure that Slow Food and other health campaigners have been calling for, as these promotions encourage over-eating, mostly of ultra-processed foods. The strategy also suggests removing sweets and snacks from end of aisles, acknowledging the power of product placement.
Another popular measure acting on price is a tax on unhealthy foods, usually on drinks. The “sugar tax” or “soda tax”, has been implemented in several countries although with significant differences. In the UK, a tax exists on soft drinks, which exempts fruit juices and other sweetened beverages despite their high sugar content. In Mexico on the other hand, a 1 peso/liter tax is imposed on all drinks with added sugar including energy drinks. Sugary drinks taxes have been imposed in nearly 40 countries including in France, various counties of the USA, Thailand, etc. The benefits of sugary drinks taxes are two-fold; they discourage the purchase of unhealthy drinks by increasing their price, and they incentivize companies to reformulate their products to contain less sugar.
Unfortunately, the current UK tax is not foreseen to be extended to other products than soft drinks, nor is the strategy proposing any mandatory reformulation of HFSS foods. The EU announced it will consider setting maximum levels for certain nutrients in processed foods, which will surely stimulate reformulation. However, although the new Farm to Fork strategy recognizes the need to create favorable food environment, it still overly relies on voluntary commitments from the industry which so far have failed in stimulating reformulation. Taken individually, these measures will not curb obesity, but by taking a mix of (binding) policy measures, we can transform obesogenic environments.
Slow Food has been long advocating for healthy food habits, quality food and lifestyle as key contributors to health. Limiting the consumption of industrially produced food, highly processed foods, avoiding sugary drinks, and consuming salt in moderation are good ways to keep in good health.
According to the WHO, 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese. In 2019, an estimated 38.2 million children under the age of 5 years were overweight or obese.
More Slow Food’s suggestions on food and health, here.
Slow Food UK’s reaction to the new obesity strategy here.