All the new rules in the government’s obesity strategy

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The government has announced a series of measures it is introducing as part of its new obesity strategy to get the nation fit and healthy, protect themselves against coronavirus, and protect the NHS.

On Monday, the Department of Health and Social Care published details of the new package and the accompanying “Better Health” campaign, which is designed to help people lose weight.

The government says it has introduced the new rules to help tackle obesity, which it states is one of the biggest health crises the UK faces.

According to recent figures, two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity and one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year.

The government adds that the urgency of tackling obesity has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from coronavirus.

It states that living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, with risk growing substantially as body mass index (BMI) increases. Nearly eight per cent of critically ill patients with Covid-19 in intensive care units have been morbidly obese, compared with 2.9 per cent of the general population.

Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier.

“If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, which will lead the “Better Health” campaign, added: “These plans are ambitious and rightly so.

“Tackling obesity will help prevent serious illness and save lives. These bold measures will help us tip the scales on obesity. The argument for action is the clearest it’s ever been.”

As the government continues to respond to the global pandemic, ministers are setting out the comprehensive package of measures to help people lose weight if they need to, get active and adopt a healthier lifestyle.

Here, we take a look at the new rules included in the government’s plan, from banning junk food adverts to prescribed bike rides.

Banning unhealthy food adverts

The government is set to introduce new laws that will ban the advertising of food high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) on television and online before 9pm when children are most likely to see them.

Ahead of this, it will also hold a new short consultation on whether the ban on online adverts for HFSS, should apply at all times of day.

Analysis published by Cancer Research UK from September 2019 shows that almost half (47.6 per cent) of all food adverts shown over the month on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for products high in fat, sugar and salt. This rises to almost 60 per cent during the 6pm to 9pm slot – the time slot where children’s viewing peaks.

Evidence supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) shows that exposure to HFSS advertising can affect what and when children eat, both in the short term and the longer term by shaping children’s preferences at a young age.

Ending ‘buy one, get one free’ (BOGOF) promotions

Further legislation will also restrict the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar, such as “buy one get one free” offers, the government states.

There will also be a ban on these items being placed in prominent locations in stores, such as at checkouts and entrances, and online.

In the UK, people spend more buying food products on promotion than any other European country and a survey from 2018 shows that around 43 per cent of all food and drink products located in prominent areas were for sugary foods and drinks, compared to just one per cent for healthy items. Shops will be encouraged to promote healthier choices and offer more discounts on food like fruit and vegetables.

Calorie labelling

Large restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees will soon be required to add calorie labels to the food they sell.

The move comes after research shows eating out is becoming more common, particularly among families, with 75 per cent of people visiting a restaurant, fast food eatery or getting a takeaway in the past week, compared to 69 per cent in 2010.

However, the government states there is often a lack of information about the calorie content of these items with research suggesting people consume around 200 more calories a day if they eat out compared to food prepared at home. It is hoped the new measure will help people make healthier, informed choices as part of a balanced diet.

Despite the new guidelines, the government has been criticised for implementing changes at same time as giving discounts on restaurants and chains via its Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which some experts state could undermine its anti-obesity campaign.

Alcohol calorie labelling

A new consultation will be launched before the end of 2020 to introduce calorie labelling on alcohol, the government states.

Alcohol consumption has been estimated to account for nearly 10 per cent of the calorie intake of those who drink, with around 3.4 million adults consuming an additional days’ worth of calories each week – totalling an additional two months of food each year.

Research shows the majority of the public (80 per cent) is unaware of the calorie content of common drinks and many typically underestimate the true content.

The government believes that alcohol labelling could lead to a reduction in consumption, improving people’s health and reducing their waistline.

Weight loss apps and cycling prescriptions

The government will also be expanding its weight management services so more people can get access to the support they need to lose weight.

This will include more self-care apps and online tools for people with obesity-related conditions and accelerating the NHS Diabetes Prevention Programme.

From next year doctors will be offered incentives to ensure people living with obesity are given support for weight loss and primary care staff will also have the opportunity to become “healthy weight coaches” though training delivered by PHE.

Separately, GPs will also be encouraged to prescribe exercise, such as cycling, and more social activities to help people keep fit.

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling

A consultation to gather opinions and evidence on the current “traffic light” labelling system used on food products will launch this year to help officials learn more about how this is being used by consumers and industry, compared to international examples.

The UK’s “traffic light” scheme is popular, with 90 per cent of consumers agreeing it helps them make informed decisions when purchasing food. Research shows that people who look at front of pack nutritional labelling are shown to have healthier shopping baskets, fewer calories, less sugar, fat and salt content and higher fibre content.

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