UK obesity soars as government inaction 'disappoints' campaigners and industry

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

Obesity-related hospital admissions for children have almost doubled in the past 10 years, which makes the government’s failure to take action a “huge tragedy”.(© iStock.com)
Obesity-related hospital admissions for children have almost doubled in the past 10 years, which makes the government’s failure to take action a “huge tragedy”.(© iStock.com)

Related tags: Childhood obesity, Obesity, Nutrition

Levels of obesity in the UK have almost doubled since the early 1990s, with 58% of women and 65% of men overweight or obese. Obesity-related hospital admissions for children have almost doubled in the past 10 years, which makes the government’s failure to take action a “huge tragedy”.

Children are also exercising less and only 52% of 15 year-olds are eating the recommended five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day. In the most deprived areas this falls to 48%. In adults the consumption levels are even worse (25% for men and 28% for women).

When it comes to eating a healthy diet, the UK’s population is also well wide of the mark set out in the Eatwell Plate (which was recently replaced by the Eatwell Guide). People are eating almost double the amount of starchy foods and around three times the amount of high fat and/or sugar products that they should be.

The figures come from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), which has pulled together data from various sources on obesity, physical activity and diet in a new report​.

The findings, which also show a link between poverty and obesity, have prompted renewed calls from campaigners and the food industry for a “joined up, cross-governmental strategy to tackle childhood obesity”.

More than one in five children (22%) in reception classes are obese or overweight, but this rises to one on three (33%) in Year 6. These figures are slightly lower than a decade ago, but mask the fact that those who are fat are getting fatter, according to the National Obesity Forum.

Since 2005/06 there have been “statistically significant increases” in sports participation, according to HSCIC. However, 57% did not play any sport in the month prior to being surveyed. The numbers of children meeting weekly physical activity guidelines is falling.

Government inaction

mars choc brands  Copyright joreks
The industry has continued to take action. Mars’ recent move to change the labels on its global portfolio being a case in point. (© iStock.com/joreks)

“The government is doing absolutely nothing and that is a huge tragedy,”​ said Tam Fry, spokesman for the UK’s National Obesity Forum. “There’s been delay after delay [on any new policy],”​ he added.

The Childhood Obesity Strategy has been held back until after the UK’s referendum on EU membership. However, there are concerns that the fallout from this summer’s vote could result in it being delayed even further. The June referendum has split the UK’s Conservative government down the middle, so whichever way the public votes there is likely to be a major cabinet reshuffle.

The delays are a continuing cause for frustration within the country’s food industry, with some sources suggesting that leaders are “distraught” that there’s nothing yet on the table. They are clearly frustrated by the hiatus.

Tim Rycroft, director of corporate affairs at the Food and Drink Federation, said it is "disappointing that the government has yet to come forward with a joined-up, cross-governmental strategy to tackle childhood obesity. “We know that obesity is a serious public health and public policy challenge, particularly for children,”​ he added. 

The industry has continued to take action, he said – Mars’ recent move​ to change the labels on its global portfolio being a case in point. But many companies are reluctant to make heavy investments in terms of product redevelopment, innovation or marketing until they know what regulation is on the way.

In March, the UK government did announce a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks​,​ but this is only one of a number of regulatory measures under consideration as part of the long-awaited strategy.

The Local Government Association demanded “urgent action” with healthcare costs from dealing with obesity having hit £5bn (€6.3bn).

“Councils have long been calling for action to tackle obesity, such as clearer labelling of sugar content, calorie counts on menus, and sugar reduction in soft drinks,”​ said LGA wellbeing spokesperson Izzi Seccombe. “We cannot delay tackling this issue any longer.”

FoodNavigator is hosting an online event on Obesity and Weight Management on 25 May where the issues will be debated by top industry players, academics and public health campaigners.

Sign up for free here​ and be part of the debate.

Related topics: Research, Regulation & Policy

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