Obesity is a clear and present danger. It is a growing threat to public health, the NHS, government finances and the economy – costing the UK over £45 billion a year according to a 2014 McKinsey report. 

So what can we do to tackle obesity?

Our review of published research tells us there are two main causes of obesity:

• What we eat and drink, when, where and how. We are now consuming more sugary drinks and snacks, more ready meals and more takeaways and food from fast food outlets than ever before; and there is more ‘mindless’ overeating of this kind of food.

• The way we experience the early months and years of life has also changed - for instance fewer natural births, less breastfeeding and more babies born to obese parents. This also looks to be another potential cause.

The government has usually taken a softly softly approach - like moves to improve food labelling, to provide public health information or to encourage gradual, voluntary reductions in the sugar and salt content of food.

These seem to have helped slow the rise in obesity but not reverse it. Most interventions so far have provided temporary damage limitation – not a long term solution. So how can we get serious about tackling obesity?

Big problems need big solutions.

Here are Health Action Campaign's recommendations:

1. Personal Responsibility is important. We need to be clear that if want the NHS to remain a free, affordable public service that we each have a right to access then we each need to take some responsibility for looking after our health. Controlling our weight isn’t rocket science. We don’t need to pursue endless fad diets. We mainly need to eat a healthy diet. 

And eating a healthy diet as parents, from conception onwards, can help our children grow up a healthy weight. Early life is a “critical period” when appetite and regulation of energy balance are programmed, with lifelong consequences for obesity risk. 

However, if we want people to follow a healthy diet then we need to ensure the food and drink most widely available and advertised is healthy, from the high street to vending machines to home delivery, 

2. The Food Industry has a vital role to play. When McKinsey reviewed ways of tackling obesity the three interventions they considered likely to have the greatest effect were portion control, reformulation and calorie rich availability. The food industry is key to achieving these three changes - and to making healthy choices the easy choices for consumers.

This would also help food companies to be seen as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, with all the positive consequences for the reputation of their brands.

3. Government also has an important part to play. Most politicians agree that vulnerable groups such as young children need to be protected. They already prohibit the sale of alcohol and cigarettes to children. To effectively tackle childhood obesity government needs to act to limit the advertising and availabilty of food for children which is high in sugar, salt, saturated fat and refined carbohydrates (S3RC). 

4. Health professionals can also make a difference. Doctors and other health professionals know the health risks arising from obesity. They see patients throughout their lives, so are well placed to observe weight gain. And they are trusted by patients to give medical advice. So they too could potentially play an important role in helping tackle obesity.

However, we need to ensure they have the confidence and skills to address lifestyle issues effectively with their patients before they start to make them ill. 

So we can reduce levels of obesity in the UK provided:

• We each take personal responsibility for managing our weight and the weight of our children
• The food and drinks industry helps make healthy choices the easy choices by making healthy food more widely available
• Government protects vulnerable groups (from young children to hospital patients) from exposure to unhealthy food and drink
• Health professionals are trained and supported to take a more active role, recognising that prevention is better than cure

15:41, 02 Nov 2016 by Michael Baber


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