Many of the elements that were expected such as a mandatory reduction in the sugar content of processed foods and restrictions on advertising to children were missing.
The UK has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, with one in three children overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. In February of this year Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, described the rise in childhood obesity as a “national emergency” and promised a “game-changing” response from the government. However there has been widespread disappointment at the report with health organisations and campaigners almost universally of the view that it had been watered down to appease the food industry.
The British Medical association called the plan ‘weak’ while Sir Harpal Kumar, chief executive of the charity Cancer Research UK, said the measures were a “missed opportunity” in the fight against childhood obesity. TV chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver was “in shock” at the plan saying
“It was set to be one of the most important health initiatives of our time, but look at the words used – ‘should, might, we encourage’ – too much of it is voluntary, suggestive, where are the mandatory points?”
The plan asks the food and drink industry to cut 5% of the sugar in products popular with children over the next year, progressing to a 20% cut within 4 years. Public Health England will report on whether the industry is reducing sugar content through the voluntary scheme and if insufficient progress is made, the government will consider “alternative levers.”
The problem with this plan is that we already know that voluntary regulation of the food industry doesn’t work and waiting 4 years before considering mandatory regulation is not treating childhood obesity as the national emergency that it is. In 2012 many food firms, supermarkets and high street chains agreed a series of voluntary pledges with the Department of Health as part of the Responsibility Deal in which they committed to playing their part in helping Britons consume 5 billion fewer calories a day. A recent study has found that although many firms who took part in the deal agreed to make their products healthier, few have actually done so (1).
The strategy also calls on primary schools to deliver at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day and asks parents and carers to ensure children get the same amount at home. Although this is certainly welcome, frequently there is too much emphasis placed upon the importance of physical activity, particularly by the food industry who like to promote the concept that what you eat doesn’t matter as long as you are burning the calories off. The truth is, irrespective of how active our children are, McDonalds and Coca-Cola are not healthy foods. There needs to be less of the heavily promoted, easy and affordable options that there currently are.
One of the main criticisms of the strategy is that it contains neither of the two measures that Public Health England said would have the most impact on the childhood obesity epidemic:
Many believe that the only explanation for not introducing these measures is that the government have bowed to the enormous pressure of the food industry lobbyists. This is particularly disappointing as when Theresa May took office just a few weeks ago, one of her core pledges was to reduce health inequality in the UK. Given that childhood obesity is closely correlated with deprivation (2) it would seem she has missed her first and possibly most important opportunity to show she means business.
It has been suggested that the government were concerned about negatively affecting the economy so soon after the Brexit vote, but considering how much obesity costs the NHS this concern seems misplaced and very short-sighted.
The Government’s primary responsibility should be the health of the British population, not the financial health of the food and drinks industry. That’s why we believe the eat well guide is a good document.
Find out more about childhood obesity and how it can be prevented and managed by studying our Association for Nutrition certified Childhood Nutrition and Obesity Prevention course.
Written by Anne-Marie O’Shea, Head of the School of Nutrition.