While the pandemic has understandably been at the forefront of the health agenda over the past year, our attention has deviated from the urgent need to tackle long-standing issues that impact the health of the nation. One of these is increasing levels of obesity.
According to data published in January 2021, it is estimated that 28 per cent of adults are obese with a further 36 per cent overweight – that leaves just over a third of adults in the UK who can be classified as having a healthy weight. As for children, almost 10 per cent of reception age children are obese, with a further 13 per cent overweight, while 21 per cent of children aged 10-11 are obese with 14 per cent overweight.
Far too often society’s lens tends to focus on the obvious physical characteristics of obesity, when really it should move beyond just being viewed as the extra weight that people carry to being seen for what it really is: a dangerous health crisis.
As well as reducing life expectancy and increasing the risk of very serious illnesses, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes, obesity has also been found to increase the severity of the impact of Covid-19 infection. Worryingly, an assessment by Public Health England indicated that being overweight or living with obesity is associated with an increased risk of hospitalisation, severe symptoms, advanced levels of treatment requirements such as mechanical ventilation, admission to intensive care units, and an increased risk of death.
Following the launch of its obesity strategy last July, the government noted that the emergence of this evidence was a “real wake-up call”. While the government’s push to empower people to make healthier choices is welcome, simultaneously the same people are being targeted daily with marketing and advertising from the highly financed and powerful junk food industry. People are being confronted by unnecessary barriers that make it very easy, and indeed normalised, to continue with the unhealthy choices they are making.
The government’s white paper on NHS reform includes an updated strategy on obesity, with proposals to ban TV and online adverts for junk food before 9pm. That would be a welcome step. Tackling this health crisis requires an all-encompassing approach that puts the health of people over the profits of companies.
This is the type of mandatory measure that is needed. It must be urgently actioned to achieve lasting and noticeable change. More transparent labelling, such as alcohol calorie labelling, as well as better retail environments, such as restricting the in-store promotion of unhealthy foods, are easily achievable. These are just some of the far-reaching mandatory steps we need if the government is serious about enabling people to make more informed, healthy choices.
Obesity is an area where we see stark health inequalities; its prevalence is highest among the most deprived groups in society. Children living in the most deprived parts of the country are twice as likely to be obese as peers living in more affluent areas. What this really means is that these children are living in poor health and are at risk of serious illness through no fault of their own. The government must focus its efforts on communities where the rates of obesity go hand in hand with economic deprivation and ensure that there is access to support and resources for those who are struggling with their weight. Local authorities must be effectively resourced and better empowered to respond to the needs of their communities. This includes having more influence on decisions that can impact the creation of healthier food environments, such as the opening of new fast-food outlets.
To mark the launch of the obesity strategy last July, Boris Johnson used his own personal journey of weight loss following his scary brush with Covid-19 to highlight the importance of the public doing the same. It is therefore imperative that the Prime Minister delivers on the much-needed action required to progress the obesity strategy, and give people a real chance of a healthy life.
Professor Dame Parveen Kumar is the British Medical Association’s Board of Science chair.