The recently published Government report on Childhood Obesity made for disappointing reading for most health campaigners with criticism being levelled at the reduction of a 50-page document to 10 pages of suggestions and proposals, issued in the parliamentary recess, in the middle of the Olympics, while ministers were away and therefore unable to discuss the content in parliament.
Overall, there were numerous key omissions versus last year’s Public Health England recommendations, notably on supermarket price promotions and marketing but also in the area of early years’ nutrition. Why is this important?
PHE’s evidence-based report showed that marketing, whether via TV, brand characters, advergames or product placement within the supermarket, can influence children’s food preferences in favour of less healthy foods. It also showed that price promotions (whether price reductions, multi-buys or extra free offers) cause consumers to actually eat more than they would normally! For example, if they buy 2 packets of biscuits on a 2 for £2 deal, when ordinarily they would have bought only one, purchasing data suggests that they do not make these extra biscuits last 2 weeks: they still buy the same biscuits next week, so not only have they eaten more, they have also spent more. Given that supermarket price promotions are weighted towards less healthy foods, together with the heavy marketing of high sugar products, we find ourselves in an obesogenic environment.
But what about personal choice?
Of course, sometimes I fancy a biscuit and that’s absolutely fine. High sugar, fat or salt foods are acceptable in moderation and that is, in fact, what makes a healthy lifestyle sustainable. But when the balance of promotions in the supermarket are on these type of foods and not the healthier ones and the marketing of these products is so strong, it becomes harder to ignore unhealthy foods and they make their way into our homes in far greater quantities than is good for us. The 80-20 rule soon becomes more like 50-50!
What’s so important about early years?
The first 1000 days of life (from conception to 2 years) are so influential on a child’s later health. What a mother eats during pregnancy can influence taste preferences and later health outcomes, as can the foods given to babies from weaning age up to around 12 months. For more information on why it’s a great idea to start weaning with tiny tastes of a variety of single vegetables, take a look at my previous blog.
Educating parents and future parents on health and nutrition is the best way to get the next generation off to a healthy start – promoting healthier eating in pregnancy, breastfeeding, good weaning practice and enjoying affordable healthy food as a family can greatly reduce the risk of later obesity. With 1 in 5 children starting primary school overweight or obese, this can’t come a moment too soon.
The report’s failure to adequately address nutrition for under 5s, particularly babies and toddlers, is a huge missed opportunity.
What did make the cut?
The sugar levy made the final cut. There are arguments for and against and that’s for another blog but the bottom line is, the measures that will work are those that change EATING behaviour. Not purchasing behaviour. Time will tell whether this levy will reduce the obesity statistics but at least the revenue raised is going towards promoting physical activity in schools.
Also, voluntary reformulation targets, mainly for sugar reduction, with the caveat that this should not lead to an increase in fat, saturates or salt, have been proposed. While this is encouraging, the British Retail Consortium, has called for mandatory sugar reduction targets. This is the only way to level the playing field and ensure reformulation occurs, without putting the responsible retailers and manufacturers at a competitive disadvantage.
Why a multi-pronged approach is essential
The causes of obesity are complex, numerous and inter-related. A single, silver bullet simply does not exist. We need to act in tandem to address the many barriers to healthy eating from cooking skills and weaning approach to food advertising and location of fast food outlets near schools and areas of social deprivation.
That’s why the Government’s report is so disappointing. There was ample opportunity to take some real steps to addressing obesity and this was sorely missed.