Health

Viewpoints: How to curb obesity

  • 14 January 2014
  • From the section Health

Obesity is a global issue caused by a multitude of factors.

Experts agree that urgent action is needed and that everyone has a role to play in finding a solution.

But which single action stands to make the biggest impact?

Savvy shoppers

Terry Jones, director at the Food and Drink Federation, says consumers need to brush up on their health knowledge and shop savvy.

"There is no simple or single solution to tackling obesity and we all need to play a role. For our part, manufacturers are changing product recipes, creating new healthier options, investing in consumer education and providing clear nutritional information to enable healthier choices.

"We must help people gain a realistic understanding of the foods and drink that they consume, and how they can fit into a healthy diet. Making greater use of nutrition labelling can help us all to manage our intake of calories and certain nutrients over the course of a day.

"We agree that more needs to be done to ensure that both adults and children take advantage of the opportunities to fit exercise into their everyday lives."

Money

Sabrina Bushe of the New Policy Institute says much of the problem boils down to poverty.

"Obesity is a general problem - present at all levels of society - but also one that becomes more likely the lower a person's household income.

"Taking 11-year-olds as an example, official statistics for England show that around 15% of children in the richest fifth of households are obese, compared with 24% of children in the poorest fifth. The overall percentage for this age group is around twice that for five-year-olds.

"What we know now as far as obesity among children is concerned is that it worsens during the time of primary school - so it is in no sense just an early years problem - and that poverty makes it a lot worse. Poverty reduction and lower levels of income inequality more widely are part of the answer."

White space

Prof Sheila Hollins, chairwoman of the British Medical Association's Board of Science, says a complete ban on advertising junk food would make a real difference.

"Environmental factors, including the promotion of unhealthy food and poor infrastructure for active means of travel, have had a negative impact on people's eating habits and activity levels and have exacerbated the UK's obesity problem.

"With an alarming rise in the levels of obesity among children, the BMA is urging the government to introduce a complete ban on the advertising and marketing of unhealthy foodstuffs and make more extensive use of the media to promote healthy lifestyle messages.

"Improved and consistent food labelling is fundamental in enabling consumers to make informed dietary choices, which is why the BMA has repeatedly called for the introduction of a standardised, consistent approach to labelling based upon the traffic-light, front-of-pack labelling."

This is something that the Children's Food Campaign also puts at the top of its wish list.

Co-ordinator Malcolm Clark says: "A significant dent on obesity levels is unlikely to happen until the government ensures all companies are changing their marketing habits, and faster and further than they would otherwise have done."

Simple swaps

Public Health England is hoping its latest initiative which asks people to make "simple swaps", like substituting sugary fizzy drinks for sugar-free or diet alternatives, will help stem the obesity crisis.

This like-for-like swap could save a family up to three-quarters of a 1kg bag of sugar over four weeks, according to the Change4Life Smart Swaps campaign.

Prof Kevin Fenton, director of health and well-being, says: "PHE are committed to helping to tackle obesity through a range of approaches that support action on the local environment to make eating less and being more physically active easier."

Keep fit programmes

The Association for the Study of Obesity says greater availability of interventions to help people to lose and manage their weight is key.

"This ranges from simple and low-cost programmes for most, with more intensive support available for people who have more severe and complex obesity. In too many towns, GPs cannot discuss obesity with their patients because there is nowhere they can refer their patients if patients want help. Evidence-based programmes are available - they just need to be made available everywhere.

"At the same time the heavy marketing of energy-dense foods and drinks needs to be halted to both support weight loss efforts and to prevent the development of obesity in currently healthy-weight individuals."

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