Government Announces New Plans to Tackle Obesity

As more evidence of a coronavirus death link emerges, new government food policies aim to tackle the obesity health crisis

As part of a bid to tackle the long-standing health problem of obesity in England, the government has announced measures including a ban on “Buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy food and restrictions on promotion of foods high in fat and sugar.

There will also be and new rules for displaying calories on menus, as well as a ban on advertising junk foods before 9pm across the whole of the UK.

Announcing the plans, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the plans would help “reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus”.

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Growing evidence

There is growing evidence of a link between obesity and a serious health risk from coronavirus – nearly 8 percent of critically ill patients in intensive care units with COVID-19 are morbidly obese, compared with 2.9 percent of the general population.

Boris Johnson’s attitude to diet seems to have changed since the days when he advised people to “eat what they like”. Commentators point to the seriousness of his own his recent coronavirus illness, which was partly put down to being overweight.

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While a levy on sugar in drinks has made some changes in buying habits, the government says it has no intention of bringing in levies on salt, fat or sugar content. It would though be consulting on a complete ban on fast food advertising.

Food labelling of calories on menus will be applied to any restaurant, cafe or takeaway chain with more than 250 employees, and there will also be a consultation on whether calorie levels should be displayed on alcoholic drinks.

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There have been objections from trade bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation and the Advertising Association, which described the measures as ‘extreme’ and said they would have little effect on obesity levels while negatively impacting food businesses.

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Policy paper

Most of these proposals were set out in a policy paper in 2018, but were stalled by Brexit and coronavirus. It’s thought that the evidence of a link between serous coronavirus conditions and obesity has brought the proposals back into focus.

A review by Public Health England showed that being obese or overweight puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. By examining existing studies the report concluded that excess weight puts people at greater risk of needing hospital admission or intensive care, and that the risk grows substantially as weight increases.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said that their was clear current evidence that being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, as well as from many other life-threatening diseases.

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Benefits for health

“Losing weight can bring huge benefits for health – and may also help protect against the health risks of COVID-19,” she said. “The case for action on obesity has never been stronger.”

The UK has one of the highest levels of obesity in Europe. Almost two-thirds of adults in England are overweight or obese, with similar figures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Under the new proposals the government will be bringing in new NHS weight management services including a 28-day weight loss programme, online tools and apps and special healthy weight coaches. GPS will be encouraged to prescribe exercises such as cycling and walking.

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Health Secretary Matt Hancock commented: “Everyone knows how hard losing weight can be, so we are taking bold action to help everyone who needs it.”

The NHS measure of obesity uses the Body Mass Index (BMI) formulation.

You can calculate your BMI by dividing your mass in kilos by the square of your height in metres. Adults with a BMI of 25 to 29.9 are classed as overweight, while those with a BMI of 30 to 39.9 are classed as obese. You can use the NHS online BMI calculator here to get a BMI figure and an estimate of the amount of weight you should lose.

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Obesity levels

The NHS also says that men with a waist of 94cm or more and women with a waist of 80cm or more are more likely to develop obesity-related problems.

While campaigners have largely welcomed the announcements, some have pointed out that similar measures in the past have not had any impact on overall obesity levels, particularly in children, and that social problems such as poverty and poor education need to be solved for any long-term improvement.

There are also calls for the government to back its policies with details of funding and availability, without which food policies aiming to tackle the obesity health crisis and emerging evidence of a coronavirus death link will be ineffective.

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