Government unveils new strategy to tackle obesity in wake of COVID-19

Hannah Pearse
Head of Nutrition and Scientific Affairs
@IGD_health

Date : 27 July 2020

It has been nearly four years since the government first published its Childhood Obesity Plan, which committed to halve childhood obesity by 2030. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, with more severe cases of the virus frequently linked to obesity – including Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s own experience – the government has this week set out a new and refreshed obesity strategy in its policy paper, ‘Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives’, including a package of measures to help people of all ages lose weight, live healthier lives and protect the NHS.

Hannah Pearse, Head of Nutrition and Scientific Affairs at IGD, here summarises the policy’s key points and outlines IGD’s perspective.

 

Background

In the UK, two-thirds of adults and a third of year 6 children are either overweight or obese1. In August 2016, Public Health England (PHE) launched its Childhood Obesity Plan with the ambition of significantly reducing childhood obesity rates in England over 10 years.

The plan initially focused on sugar tax and sugar reduction; then in March 2018, reformulation targets were extended to calories and portion size with the announcement of the Calorie Reduction Plan.

In June 2018, a second instalment of the plan was launched, setting a national ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 and significantly reduce the health inequalities that persist. Due to several delays and then the impact of COVID-19, the calorie reduction targets were never published and many of the other proposals that were put out to consultation were stalled.

Now, with our own Prime Minister Boris Johnson having first-hand experience of COVID-19,  and acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that his case was exacerbated by his weight, the government has committed to a new approach to tackle the nation’s weight, resurrecting many of the proposals in the 2018 policy paper with a fresh focus to support adults, as well as children, to lose weight.

Policy summary

Marketing and promotional restrictions:

  • New laws to ban TV and online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm. The intention is to implement both bans at the same time by the end of 2022
  • End of deals such as ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods high in salt, sugar and fat
  • A ban on items high in fat, sugar and salt being placed in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online

Out of home calorie information:

  • A new law to be introduced to display calories on menus, to help people make healthier choices when eating out. Applicable to all cafes, take-aways and restaurants with more than 250 employees
  • A new consultation will be launched on plans to provide calorie labelling on alcoholic drinks 

New campaign to encourage healthy, active lifestyles:

  • Additional apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions. This includes a new 12 week online programme to ‘better health
  • A new campaign to help people lose weight, get active and eat better 
  • Incentives for doctors to support patients with obesity, including healthy weight coaches and prescribing exercise
  • A new consultation will be launched to review the current front-of-pack labelling system, to determine how it is being used and if it is the best approach

The view from IGD

Few would disagree that urgent action is required to help people who need to lose weight. The over-consumption of calories is a key contributing factor to overweight and obesity, with only a few hundred additional calories required each day to gain weight over time.

Tackling childhood obesity is hugely important, but this strategy’s renewed focus on adult obesity is also a really positive step forward. 

This package of initiatives from government uses a range of approaches to tackle these issues, as no single approach will solve the problem. 

Information alone is unlikely to change behaviour, so it is important that the environments we operate in ensure that the healthy choice is the easy choice for consumers. IGD is working closely with industry to identify different interventions, to help ‘nudge’ consumers to make healthier choices.

Initiatives such as front-of-pack labelling and calories on menus may not in themselves cause the necessary changes in behaviour, but they are likely to result in improved nutritional profiles of products and healthier options, as companies are spurred on to present better choices for their customers.

IGD will continue to work with government and industry, sharing our insight and best practice, for example our research on front-of-pack labelling and healthy eating in the workplace, to help move the agenda forward and improve the health of the nation. 

Full policy paper can be accessed here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/tackling-obesity-government-strategy/tackling-obesity-empowering-adults-and-children-to-live-healthier-lives

PHE report on insights from new evidence on the relationship between excess weight and COVID-19: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/excess-weight-and-covid-19-insights-from-new-evidence

Reference
 1 NHS, Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2020