Does the government’s anti-obesity strategy offer more harm than help?

Almost two-thirds of UK adults are classed as either overweight or obese, and the UK government currently runs an anti-obesity strategy to try and tackle this. Is this a worthwhile investment, or a waste of funds that would be better used elsewhere? Does the campaign offer more harm than help?

What is the anti-obesity campaign?

Former prime minister Boris Johnson contracted Covid-19 in April of 2020 and, like many who contracted the disease, became ill enough to require intensive care. This was partly down to excessive weight, triggering Johnson to make tackling obesity a personal and government priority.

Further health campaign measures were proposed in July 2020, aimed at helping people to be healthier to help protect them against Covid-19. This hoped to reduce hospital admissions of patients with Covid-19, helping prevent the NHS becoming overwhelmed during a time of high demand for health care.

The measures were to include a ban on online and televised advertisements for unhealthy foods before 9pm. They also aimed to ban price deals for unhealthy foods, and prevent unhealthy foods being placed in obvious locations in shops, such as by checkouts.

It is proven that our environment is highly influential on the choices we make. If people are given an environment that helps to guide them with accurate information to make healthier choices, this will liberate people to be able to access a healthier lifestyle.

This is especially relevant for children who are less aware about nutrition and the effects of obesity. Altering the environment that we raise our children in, reducing the advertisement of unhealthy choices, this may help reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity, and development of related health conditions.

Financially wasteful or a strong investment?

During Liz Truss’ short 6 weeks as prime minister, it was suggested that these measures may be scrapped, cutting spending during the current cost of living crisis. Truss claimed that people would rather funds are used to deliver strong public services, and that “they don’t want the government telling them what to eat”.

Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, would potentially scrap the measures to free up funds to invest elsewhere. This disregards the advice of 32 previous health ministers

Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £6.1bn every year due to the health implications it can have. Depending on the government’s approach, removing this huge cost would allow for a decrease in public taxes, or ideally, greater financial investment in other areas of the NHS or public services.

A serious reaction to Covid-19 is just one of the many severe health consequences that can stem from obesity, along with heart conditions and type 2 diabetes. There is a correlation between increased levels of obesity in the UK and rising of related health conditions.

Hence, the anti-obesity campaign is an investment into the NHS. By using funds to help tackle obesity, the prevalence of related health complications will reduce, which will reduce pressure on NHS services. This means funds invested into the campaign are not wasteful and would not be better used directly investing into the NHS, as they already aid the NHS.

This is supported by the Obesity Health Alliance, which includes 50 health charities and organisations, who believe that the government scrapping the anti-obesity health campaign would be a “kick in the teeth”.

What about calorie counts on menus?

The anti-obesity campaign enforces the calorie content of foods to be shown on menus, aiming to help people make healthier choices when eating out. Being informed of calories may make more people feel comfortable to eat out, increasing spending within the service sector. This would aid financial growth after businesses financially suffered greatly during the Covid-19 lockdown periods.

This policy may help some people who are looking to make more informed dietary choices. However, a person’s health is a cumulative effect of their entire diet. Eating out is generally a social experience, not just about the food, so people want to be able to concentrate on conversation, rather than the number of calories their meal contains. An occasional meal out in a restaurant can still be part of an overall balanced and healthy lifestyle, regardless of the food choices that a person makes for that one meal.

Furthermore, obesity is not the only thing to be considered. Mental health is also affected by displaying calories on menus. It is often highly triggering to people with or recovering from eating disorders, or anyone in our society who is vulnerable to the pressures of diet culture. Raising children in an environment where we limit the advertisement of unhealthy food may benefit them. However, an environment focused on calories may be damaging to young people, who’s brains are developing whilst they absorb this information, increasing the risk of poor mental health and disordered eating.

Therefore, displaying calorie counts on menu’s is not an investment into the NHS, but may worsen many people’s mental health. This adds pressure to NHS mental health services, which are already heavily burdened. It may also reduce the number of people who feel comfortable eating out, reducing spending within the service sector and damaging our economy.

What should be done?

The anti-obesity campaign contains measures which benefit people within our society, helping people make healthier choices and tackle obesity. These measures should not be scrapped as they help reduce the prevalence of health conditions associated with obesity, reducing strain on our NHS. The campaign itself is an investment into the NHS.

However, enforcing menus to display the calorie content in food is damaging to many people and this measure alone should be removed.

Image by Leeloo Thefirst on Pexels

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