The government has revealed a package of new measures falling under its new Obesity Strategy that are designed to improve health, ease the related burden on the NHS, and strengthen the public’s resilience to COVID-19.
Almost two thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity, one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, and obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS some £6 billion a year, highlighting the urgent need for effective action.
The urgency is further fuelled by recent data showing that obesity has an affect on COVID-19 survival, with those severely obese at twice the risk of dying from the virus.
Living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, with risk growing substantially as BMI increases, the government stressed, noting that nearly 8% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9% of the general population.
In response, ministers have set out new measures to help people lose weight, get active and adopt a healthier lifestyle, alongside a new campaign led by Public Health England, Better Health, which will call on people to embrace a healthier lifestyle with support from a range of tools and apps providing advice on how to do so.
The new measures include:
- Banning unhealthy food adverts – new laws will ban the advertising of food high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) on television and online before 9pm when children are most likely to see them. The government will also hold a new short consultation on whether the ban on online adverts for HFSS, should apply at all times of day. The move follows analysis published by Cancer Research UK showing that 47.6% of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for products high in fat, sugar and salt, rising to nearly 60% during the 6.00 to 9.00pm slot – during which children’s viewing peaks. Evidence shows that exposure to HFSS advertising can affect what and when children eat, both in the short term and the longer term by shaping children’s preferences at a young age.
- Ending BOGOF promotions – new legislation will restrict the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar, such as ‘buy one get one free’ offers. There will also be a ban on these items being placed in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances and online. A survey from 2018 shows that around 43% of all food and drink products located in prominent areas were for sugary foods and drinks, compared to just 1% for healthy items. Shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on food like fruit and vegetables.
- Calorie labelling – new laws will require large restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees to add calorie labels to the food they sell. Research shows eating out is becoming more common, particularly among families, with 75% of people visiting a restaurant, fast food eatery or getting a takeaway in the past week, compared to 69% in 2010. However, information on calorie content is often lacking, and research suggests people consume around 200 more calories a day if they eat out compared to food prepared at home.
- Alcohol calorie labelling – the government will launch by the end of the year new consultation on plans to provide calorie labelling on alcohol. It is estimated that alcohol consumption accounts for nearly 10% of the calorie intake of those who drink, but research shows that the majority of the public (80%) is unaware of the calorie content of common drinks.
- Expanding NHS services – weight management services are to be expanded to increase support for those needing to lose weight. This will include more self-care apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions and accelerating the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme. Also, from 2021, doctors will be offered incentives to ensure people living with obesity is 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.
- Front of pack nutritional labelling – another consultation will be launched to gather views and evidence on the current ‘traffic light’ labelling system to increase understanding on how it is used by consumers and industry, compared to international examples. Research shows that those who look at front of pack nutritional labelling have healthier shopping baskets.
“These plans are ambitious and rightly so. Tackling obesity will help prevent serious illness and save lives,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE.
“The main reason we put on weight is because of what we eat and drink, but being more active is important too. Making healthier choices easier and fairer for everyone, and ensuring the right support is there for those who need it, is critical in tackling obesity.”
“We know obesity increases the risk of serious illness and death from coronavirus – so it’s vital we take action on obesity to protect the NHS and improve our nation’s health,” added health secretary Matt Hancock.
“Helping people to improve their health and wellbeing are welcome and will ultimately reduce the burden on NHS services in any circumstances. That is especially true during the pandemic when the measures have the potential to help reduce the severity of the virus,” said Dr Layla McCay, director at the NHS Confederation.
“However, we recognise that benefits will mostly be long term and the Government will need to continue to support services and their staff during what is expected to be a challenging period. It will be particularly important to recognise any additional workload on primary care.
“As we await further detail, we hope the Government’s strategy will also recognise and address the role of inequality where obesity and COVID-19 interact.”