Obesity in the spotlight of COVID-19

Date : 24 September 2020

Hannah Skeggs

Nutrition & Scientific Affairs Manager

The pandemic has caused seismic shifts in how the government, food industry and consumers operate. Despite this, obesity remains a key focus.


Some three in 10 adults in the UK are now obese, and the pandemic has demonstrated what we have known for a while: our diets are inextricably linked with our health.

Before the pandemic, poor diet was responsible for one in seven deaths in the UK. Now, people living with obesity are more than 50% more likely to die from COVID-19.

In May, IGD hypothesised that obesity would remain a key focus for government, consumers and the food industry. This article explores what has happened since.

Policy update

The last few months have seen no shortage of government activity.

Even with the announcement that PHE would be replaced, government departments have published new guidance, updates and opened public consultations in an effort to tackle obesity. This highlights how top of mind this agenda is.

There has been a significant shift in focus. Previously the government’s strategy was titled ‘The childhood obesity strategy’, with interventions focused on the prevention of children developing into overweight or obese adults. Now the spotlight has broadened to encompass adults too and is not only preventative but places increased focus on helping both adults and children to lose weight through healthcare support and subsidised physical activity.

This is documented in the government’s latest obesity strategy report - Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives. The report outlines restrictions on marketing and promotions, mandatory out-of-home calorie labelling and a new campaign to encourage healthy, active lifestyles. Read more here.

There have subsequently been multiple publications from PHE to continue the work of reformulation programmes showing that a multifaceted approach to reducing obesity is being taken.

How do consumers feel about the policy updates?

Consumer behaviour in relation to obesity and physical activity has also evolved.

Tracking data has consistently shown that at any given time, the majority of shoppers are trying to, or aspire to, improve their diets in some way. Most recently, 89% of shoppers claim to be trying to improve their diets but most believe they are already eating healthily1.

With the government consulting on various legislation that aims to make it easier for consumers to identify healthy choices, IGD’s ShopperVista asked 2,000 UK consumers their thoughts on new aspects of policy.

1. Shoppers want to be healthy, but it’s more important in some situations

For consumers, making a healthier choice is most important to them when cooking from scratch at home – with three quarters saying it is important to them day-to-day. Surprisingly over half (56%) still say health is important when deciding what to eat on special occasions.

Whilst many welcome out-of-home calorie labelling it’s more likely to impact their purchasing decisions when buying food to go for lunch, than when eating in a restaurant. Over half of consumers said that the government's intention to force larger pubs, restaurants and cafes to show calorie information on their menus would be effective in encouraging them to choose a healthier option.

Many establishments already display calorie content, particularly in quick service restaurants, so shoppers have likely already experienced this approach.


2. Health isn’t top of mind when choosing an alcoholic drink

When it comes to drinking an alcoholic beverage only 25% of people think making a healthy choice is important. When we asked shoppers about whether alcoholic calories were important, most admitted that they didn’t consider the calorie content of alcohol as they often associate the experience with socialising with friends or treating themselves.


However, 45% of shoppers said that displaying calorie content on alcoholic drinks would be effective at encouraging them to choose a healthier option. Time will tell whether providing calorie information on alcohol results in behaviour change.

3. Physical activity is polarising and needs support

The new government strategy considers the balance between what we eat and how much we exercise. It discusses measures such as subsidising gyms, or providing exercise equipment such as bicycles for those looking to lose weight.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, 34% of shoppers claim to have exercised more. However, this is polarising as a similar 31% tell us they’ve exercised less.

When we asked shoppers what would encourage them to exercise in the future, 69% felt better public facilities like parks and cycle lanes would help them stay active and 62% wanted a reward scheme that allowed visiting the gym or walking regularly to translate into fiscal rewards like shopping discounts.


Overarchingly it seems that there is a greater desire for the government to support health than ever before.

Shoppers are placing increasing value on their personal health and they are looking to the government, food industry and their employers to support them in staying well. It is too soon to know if the government’s plans will be effective at changing behaviour, but there is generally a good level of consumer support for being better informed about what they eat and drink.

1 ShopperVista. Shoppers of Our Time. Living healthier after COVID-19. 2,000 British shoppers, 28th – 30th August 2020