In a bid to address the worsening obesity crisis in the UK, a new plan was unveiled at the end of July. New measures include:
- A ban on junk food advertisements on television before watershed
- Increased incentives for GP’s to tackle obesity, including the option to prescribe cycling to patients
- Requiring the labelling of calories on restaurant menus
- Adding calorie labels to alcoholic drinks
Yet health and well-being is arguably more than just a number on a scale. As an advocator of exercise and fitness for both physical and mental health, I am well aware of the positive effects of healthy living. Yet the government’s approach fails to acknowledge that it is not simply about ‘reducing the number on the scale’. This is flawed. For one, muscle weighs more than fat.
Too much focus is placed on finding a ‘quick fix’ to excessive weight, and the government’s approach could risk perpetuating an already worrying diet culture. Many people don’t exercise or lose weight to foster a healthy lifestyle, but rather to meet short term goals – such as to “look good in a bikini” on holiday. But healthy living has so many more benefits than simply weight loss. Improvements in self-confidence and stress reduction are just some of these. Instead of focussing on short term solutions, we should be trying to collectively improve the health of the whole nation.
Adding calorie counts to menus is a strategy that needs to be better thought through. This initiative, to allow people to ‘make more informed choices’ could easily backfire. There are an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK suffering with an eating disorder and a focus on calorie consumption in this way is extremely dangerous, and is a known trigger for those suffering with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. This approach suggests that all foods high in calories are unhealthy. Yet this is further from the truth. Many healthy foods are rich in calories – including nuts, whole grains, and avocados. The ‘calories in vs. calories out’ strategy is reductionist and fails to acknowledge the importance of where the calories come from. Instead, an educational campaign focussed on encouraging the consumption of whole, minimally processed foods would be a better approach.
Moreover, eating healthily is not always a solution readily available to those in deprived areas. The fact is, healthy food simply isn’t accessible to all. A report by the House of Lords Food, Poverty, Health, and Environment Committee found that individuals living in these areas are twice as likely to be obese in comparison to their wealthier counterparts. This is due to overpriced healthy foods, and only serves to worsen health inequalities, deepening the divide between the wealthy and the poor. At the beginning of last year, the Environmental Audit Committee published a report that highlighted the need to acknowledge food insecurity in the government’s anti-obesity initiative. Yet this seems to be missing from the latest bid.
Taxes on unhealthy foods should be introduced alongside subsidies on healthy foods and leisure activities to make healthier lifestyles more accessible to those in poverty. In order to truly address the root cause of the issue, such lifestyles need to be available to everyone, and not just those able to afford it.
Exercise and healthy living needs to be seen from a long term perspective, encompassing both mental and physical health. While I welcome the intention behind the government’s bid to tackle obesity, and support the desired outcomes, the focus should instead be on health education, empowerment and affordability for all. Now, more than ever, as the nation battles through these uncertain and stressful times, a strong public health initiative targeted at these outcomes is needed.
Featured Image Credit: Pikist