/ Food & Drink, Health

Who’s responsible for tackling obesity?

I recently discussed the government’s plans to trim down obesity. Many felt that we should take more responsibility for what we eat. So, is the government, industry or the hungry public ultimately responsible?

Our research has shown that most people know what they should be eating to be healthy. Give or take a few areas of confusion, the advice is quite simple: watch how much fat, sugar and salt you are eating and eat lots of fruit and vegetables.

With over a quarter of people now obese, it’s clear that a lot of people are struggling to get the balance right.

Food glorious food

In our previous discussion on the Responsibility Deal, Pam told us:

‘The problem does not lie in food labelling, but in greed and laziness.’

There’s a big element of personal choice – and life would be pretty miserable if you couldn’t enjoy food. But our research shows that people think that the way food is produced, sold and marketed can make it too easy to eat unhealthily.

At Which?, we have focused a lot on labelling because the nutritional content of processed foods we buy or foods we order when eating out isn’t always obvious. There can be high levels of salt in foods even if it’s not always obvious from the taste, and the foods with the highest calorie content can often be counter-intuitive.

And the price of food is receiving a lot of attention here on Which? Conversation (and not just pasty-gate!). Commenter Celcat told us that it’s cheaper to eat ‘unhealthily’ than it is healthy.

Will food taxes deter?

Commenter Kate said that, although people should be made more accountable for their health, an unhealthy tax might deter manufacturers:

‘Food manufacturers should also be made responsible for creating food that is full of chemicals, sugar and saturated fat – perhaps a tax on these things might make them think twice about loading it into the food that they are producing.’

There’s been some success among manufacturers reducing salt levels in foods and a start has been made on reducing saturated fat. But do you think the government’s new ‘calorie reduction pledge’, launched last weekend, will make a difference to our diets? And will you be sampling the delights on the new reduced calorie product ranges?

There’s still a lot more the government and industry can do to help make it less of a struggle to find healthy, tasty choices that are affordable. Individual choice can only take us so far – and failure to get to the root causes of obesity has far wider implications for our health service, economy and society as a whole.

Who is responsible for tackling obesity?

We, the people (49%, 187 Votes)

All of the above (44%, 167 Votes)

Food manufacturers/sellers (4%, 15 Votes)

The government (3%, 11 Votes)

Total Voters: 379

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One factor that has not received much comment is portion sizes. Many people eat out quite a lot and it is common to be given large portions, probably to try and please customers. Large portions mean wasted food and/or people eating more than they should.

I would prefer order a small portion – at a lower price. If I’m given a large portion I will generally eat what is on my plate.


You say “Our research has shown that most people know what they should be eating to be healthy.”

You do not, however, say what you consider to be a healthy diet.

I am a Type 2 Diabetic controlling my Blood Glucose (BG) using diet and exercise.

I see that the standard dietary advice, such as found at the NHS site under “/Livewell/Goodfood/Pages/eatwell-plate.aspx” recommends a diet which is relatively high in carbohydrates. This dietary advice is the same for people with and without diabetes.

Traditional advice for people with diabetes was to reduce carbohydrate intake. Countries such as Sweden champion the Low Carb High Fat (LCHF) diet because they have found that carbohydrates stimulate appetite whilst fats and protein inhibit appetite. LCHF diets are good at reducing weight and improving BG control.

Carbohydrates are also very close to being sugar, and are quickly converted. I remember in Biology class at school an experiment where you held a piece of bread in your mouth and tasted the sweetness as the enzymes in your saliva converted the starch to sugar.
Much like the early stages of brewing beer, where again the enzymes convert the starch in the grain to sugar.

Those of us who test our BG 2 hours after meals AND are susceptible to carbohydrates (not all people with diabetes are susceptible) well know how much a carb heavy meal can push up your BG.

So – the current dietary advice from the NHS may not be 100% on target in all cases.
In many ways this is not surprising because medical opinion and advice is constantly changing.
However, any attempt to impose the current view by legislation in a “one size fits all” approach may in fact harm some of those it is supposedly trying to help.

Consider if
(a) Meat, cheese, butter, cream, olive oil are all good for you.
(b) Bread, pastry, pasta, biscuits, pizza are all bad for you
where you would legislate.

Consider what action might be taken if it was considered that carbohydrates were addictive, and cheap bulk carbohydrates were feeding that addicition and leading in a spiral towards obesity and complications such as diabetes?

How many people have stood at a supermarket checkout and seen litterally dozens of budget white sliced loaves go through in one trolley?

Legislation seems to be the “weapon of choice” at the moment – presumably because it is headline grabbing and easier to implement (by passing the responsibility onto retailers) than education.

What, though, if it is not “greed and laziness” but an addiction which leaves the victim with helpless cravings which are only satisfied by the cheapest and most readily available “staples” which are not touched by this legislation?

Makes you think (hopefully) 🙂

Oh, and I am not overweight although I was a little overweight when I was diagnosed.
I have never been obese.
I now think that I know what I should be eating to be healthy.
The NHS may not fully agree.


Years ago I was appalled to find that a friend’s mother was eating a high fat diet because she was diabetic and that was the recommendation at the time. That was at a time when the public was being told of the dangers of a high fat diet, particularly saturated fats.

Some carbohydrates such as starch are rapidly converted into glucose (the sugar in blood) as you say. Unrefined carbohydrates are much better, so many vegetables (avoid potatoes, which have a high starch content) and wholegrain/wholemeal carbohydrates are a better choice for those with diabetes or want to avoid this horrible disease.

Anyone with diabetes or pre-diabetes should be given dietary advice and I don’t think that will be to eat a high fat diet. There is a good case for making the public aware of the complications of poorly-controlled diabetes.

I agree that general dietary advice should encourage the public to seek specialist advice if they have a condition such as diabetes, where more specific advice is appropriate.



you say “Years ago I was appalled to find that a friend’s mother was eating a high fat diet because she was diabetic and that was the recommendation at the time. That was at a time when the public was being told of the dangers of a high fat diet, particularly saturated fats.”

Why were you appalled? Did you appreciate the difference between the types of fats, and the differences between processed and unprocessed fats?

Butter and olive oil are fats, but allegedly quite good for you.

Massively processed fats in manufactured pastries, pies etc. may not be nearly as good for you.

Medical opinion keeps changing.
For instance, eggs keep going from being good to bad to good again as the understanding of cholesterol grows.
Red wine is good then bad then good.

Perhaps fats are about to become good again 🙂


littlegrey cat

I certainly know about different types of fats and have given some university lectures the topic. I have some knowledge of what is in foods but know little about the effect of consumption of different oils and fats on humans.

I am not sure that medical opinion is changing as frequently as you may think. The press and those who claim to know about diet select information so that they can present a news story or justify whatever they want to claim. There is a lot of misuse of science. It is difficult for the public to know what is best to do, and even with my scientific background I find it difficult to know what is best to eat or avoid.

One useful step forward was the discovery that trans-fats can be harmful when consumed in large amounts. These are produced when vegetable oils are solidified to produce fats. They can be identified as ‘hydrogenated vegetable oil’ in ingredient lists. Now that the problem is known, manufacturers have decreased or eliminated them from their products.

I would take some of the news stories about diet with a pinch of salt. Not too much, of course. 🙂


littlegrey cat

I realise that I did not answer your question. I was appalled by the recommendation that my friends mother should eat a high fat diet because of repeated warnings that this could lead to heart disease. She did not have any of the complications of diabetes but she did die of heart disease. Obviously that could have been coincidental but it was enough to encourage her obese son, who lived at home, to switch to a low fat diet and lose a lot of weight.



I think we may be in agreement here (ish).
If the diet you referred to above had a high percentage of trans fat then there was every cause for concern.
If it was just “high fat” then it could have been good.

I’ve just been reading some views on Ancel Keys which tends to reinforce the view that a lot of the populist “knowledge” about fats and diet is based on questionable analysis of questionable data.

What was that quote about lies, dmaned lies, and statistcs? 🙂


I would love to eat healthy food, but I have never found a rotten can of baked beans in the dozens I buy and hoard. Yet my local supermarket the “fresh” fruit and veg is very questionable at the best of times, mouldy strawberries etc and the staff just standing around talking. And with the price of petrol I cant afford to keep going shopping every other day to get “fresh” produce. So its once a fortnight and cheap junk food sadly.


Baked beans are not junk food. 🙂
For vegetables, frozen is usually at least as healthy as fresh. The freezing preserves the vitamins at the time of picking. During shipping, storage and display “fresh” fruit and vegetables are deteriorating all the time.
Fresh vegetable and fruit should last several days, possibly a week or more.

So really perhaps you should get perishables from a better shop than your current local supermarket. We find our local Lidl and Aldi very good for fresh fruit and vegetables as well as being cheap.

Please don’t equate all packaged foods with being unhealthy.


I only refer to them as junk food, due to the high quantities of sugar and salt they contain. Maybe I should have just said unhealthy.

JamesAard1 says:
30 March 2012

The one with the fat stomach and the big mouth is the first to blame. No excuse is welcome. However, the awfully manufactured/rendered/condensed/re-constituted and available in packs of ten in five amazing colours – type foods take far more than they give in terms of health and should be strictly metered, even for use as animal food. If the world’s farming industry are correct in their statement that ‘they’ couldn’t possibly feed us all with ‘good food’, then some of us are just going to have to go. There’s the rub. Who do we round up first?


I will remain open-minded but there has been a great deal of criticism of the Atkins diet, which has been dubbed as the short-cut to heart disease on account of the high fat content.

Many diabetics manage to control their blood sugar well by means of diet or diet and drugs. Monitoring blood sugar, understanding their condition and willpower are essential to success.

Monika says:
30 March 2012

Littlegreycat – I have heard your story time and again from people who have diabetes2 and it is very worrying that the advice being given (if indeed any advice IS given) does not tally with the most research currently out there. I have met many people with diabetes2 who were not given ANY advice when they were diagnosed! The point about refined carbs being addictive is also true and not usually mentioned.


Thanks – I note that Wavechange above did not think that diet advice would be high fat (although it used to be).
Hopefully the pendulum will swing back the other way and it will be recognised once again that the LCHF diet has a place in the management of weight and diabetes.

I think there is currently an emotive connection between eating fat and being fat.

We are discussing here the proportions of different foodstuffs within a calorie controlled diet, and the efects of different mixes of food types when eaten in moderation. Eating a diet where the proportion of fat compared to carbohydrate is quite high can help limit the total calories consumed.

NHS (established) advice tends to lag a few years behind the latest information in most cases.

Sylvia says:
30 March 2012

Many years ago I read about the “mountain of surplus sugar” piling up in warehouses, and what the manufacturers could do with it. Their answer was to introduce it to as many foodstuffs as possible, eg. tinned soups & vegetables,gravy mixes (even packets of chili con carne sauces), mayonnaise, pates, and hundreds more products which are eaten daily by consumers. Ask Delia whether she includes sugar in her recipes for pate, mayonnaise or gravy. Consider also the addition of milk powders – eg to ready-mix beef gravy, which manufacturers add to many every-day products. When cooking at home, I would never consider adding sugar or milk products to those food items mentioned above.
I sincerely believe that a radical reduction of “hidden sugars” present in manufactured produce would reduce the numbers of obese people in our society.


The simple answer is that the majority of those that are overweight are simply not doing enough exercise for the amount of food they are eating. If you like big meals, do more exercise – simple!

On a separate point, I am often amazed at the amount of salt that is added to products and the range of products that have high salt content where you wouldn’t expect it, such as cereals. Certain products such as curry sauce’s are so salty that the taste for me is unbearable. I am sure that most products would actually taste better if the salt content was reduced so I do wonder why manufacturers persist in going over the top with the amount of salt they put in.



simple or simplistic?

If someone already has a weight problem which has compromised their mobility, telling them “Simple, do more exercise” is neither a practical nor caring response.

One solution is to eat a diet which does not encourage you to eat big meals.

Another is to educate the people who are feeding these poor people.
Leaving aside the somewhat murky world of “feeders” and “gainers” most very obese people need someone to actively shop for them, prepare their meals, and feed them.

God knows why anyone would do this, but the only answer IMHO is education, education, education!


Garry, you may be interested in our guest post from CASH about the amount of salt in our foods; https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/salt-awareness-week-salt-food-pizza-cash/

Richard Burton says:
9 August 2012

At last, someone who appreciates what the real problem is!

It isn’t, as is commonly assumed (by Which? and many others) overeating, it’s underexercising. The average calorific intake has fallen over the past fifty years, so people should be thinner. They aren’t because exercise levels have plummeted.

A reasonable response to this situation is to encourage people to exercise more, in a form that they find easy and convenient to do, and one of the best ways is active travel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_travel. Sport has a limited appeal, and only the dedicated few maintain it for long, and likewise going to the gym.

Unlike all other forms of exercise, active travel is just the way you get around, and isn’t seen as a chore. It also saves money, is quicker around towns, reduces pollution, congestion and road danger, and quite why our society isn’t promoting it with absolute conviction is beyond me. It would have far more effect than any sporting event like the Olympics, and would cost less.

The main reason that people don’t take up active travel, especially cycling, is that it is portrayed as dangerous, especially by those promoting cycle helmets: after all, if cycling wasn’t dangerous no-one would bother wearing a helmet. In fact, cycling is, by any measure, safe, and the risks are about the same as walking. Nevertheless, organisations promoting helmets deliberately portray it as a very risky activity, with propaganda suggesting that it is extremely reckless to ride a bike without a helmet. Just check out publicity from BRAKE, BHIT, and Which? which recommends helmets for cyclists but not pedestrians, based on irrelevant laboratory tests. There are also individuals like James Cracknell who produced that frightening video without mentioning that he is sponsored by the helmet manufacturer – I wonder how many helmets they sold after that.

Perhaps Which? might like to investigate the best buy in health terms between a “healthy” diet and active travel?

Richard Burton says:
9 August 2012

Apologies if this is a repeat, but the first attempt doesn’t seem to have gone through.

Patrick, I think you’ve misunderstood: I wasn’t talking about activity holidays, I was talking about active travel, making all local journeys on foot or bicycle, totally different.

Regular cyclists live longer and are fitter, healthier, wealthier and slimmer than the general population, and estimates of benefit to risk vary from between 20 and 80 to one. It is much more dangerous not to ride a bicycle than to do so. Whilst I’m not aware of any similar data for walking, the effects must be beneficial.

Getting people to integrate active travel into their life would have more effect than diets, exhortations to eat less and exercise more, and more effect than the olympics. It would also reduce pollution, congestion, noise and road danger, whilst improving public health. I am completely baffled as to why our successive governments and local authorities continue to plan for the motor car and only include active travel as an afterthought, if at all.

One of the major reasons given for not taking up cycling is the danger from other road users, and this attitude comes largely from helmet propaganda and promotion, but as I stated above, it’s more dangerous not to ride a bike than to ride one.

It is unfortunate that so many agencies which should be promoting cycling for the public health and many other reasons, seek to deter it by portraying it as dangerous to justify their obsession with cycle helmets e.g. BRAKE, BHIT, RoSPA and Which? itself, which happily promotes helmets because they pass utterly irrelevant laboratory tests.

Perhaps Which? could test the effectiveness of active travel compared to going to the gym or dieting?

Check out cyclehelmets.org for the facts about cycling and helmets.


Hi Richard – it’s a really interesting area, and one which I fully support. I don’t like forking out money for a gym membership when I can get exercise by walking or cycling (if I’m brave enough – am a bit too scared to cycle in London). Also, I enjoy the feeling of getting somewhere, without having to sit in a stuffy tube.

As it’s primarily focused on health, I suspect research along the lines that you suggest would be best done by a health charity rather than Which? itself, although I like the idea of the test. If you’re interested, sustrans is a charity that focuses on encouraging more people to take up active travel, and it has collated some interesting research on the benefits etc, here: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/resources/research-and-monitoring/related-academic-research

Sophie Gilbert says:
30 March 2012

I was on holiday in Tenerife just there and you could recognise the Brits by the size of their girths. It was embarassing. What are we doing wrong? One of the answers to the problems (there can’t be only one), I agree with littlegreycat, is indeed education, education, education.

Jeanette Smith says:
31 March 2012

I would recommend Dr Robert Young’s books. He talks you though type 1 & 2 diabetic’s in very simple language. Even if you are not a diabetic his books are a fab read, I have all 3 of them. Any one over weight is dehydrated… we should drink 1 pint of water every day for every 3 stone that we weigh. It may take a while to build up to drinking that amount when you are not used to it. By hydrating yourself your body can take care of it’s self. This should be tap water as it has oxygen in it, bottled is dead water. DO NOT drink any fizzy drinks at all, even water, it’s all acidic which dehydrates you, makes your body acidic and thus so may people get cancer!! I have been drinking lots of water no for nearly 3 years, and part fro losing weight ( not that I much over – about a stone ) I now sleep better, feel better, have more energy. My nails are strong and I used to get cold sores.. I don’t any more. All though’s time when you feel hungry and not long eaten. had a head ache, had tummy ache, period pains, morning sickness, these are all cries from your body for WATER. If possible try to drink water with a PH of at least 8.5, tap is about 7.3 so you may need to buy a machine if possible.

DO these 2 things and you will change your life.. I did.

vanessa says:
31 May 2012

I pressed disagree by mistake and it wont change but yes drinking water is important but that is only half of the problem. It is a magic cure to many symptoms but it will not cure everything


I think you were right to click ‘disagree’, Vanessa, as others have done.

I have had a quick look at Dr Young’s website and here is a small quotation: “According to Dr. Young, water with a pH between 9 and 11, molecularly structured for optimal hydration, and electron rich, is most beneficial. ” I’m not sure what that means and I have a degree in chemistry.

The real benefit of drinking tap water is that it is cheap and there is no plastic bottles to make or dispose of, making it better for the environment.

vanessa says:
31 May 2012

I have not read the book but I know water is important but it is never going to be the B all and end all. Water is better for you than fizzy drinks as some people will find they are drinking their calories instead of eating them. Obesity must ultimately be down to the indivitual, But in saying that education is also important their are so many fad diets out there through the net and some times overweight people do not know where to turn to. I run a group that educates people in what they need to know about food labels how to read them, what type of foods to avoid e.g transfats, hydrogenated fats, what the differing names for sugars are and many other topics but it will still be up to the indivitual to eat better. As long as there are cheap foods available and VAT is put on the healthy foods and suppliments then people will choose to eat what they can afford to eat.


I very much agree with you about the fizzy drinks. I don’t buy them, except for visitors.

There is general agreement that diets should focus on eating less food in conjunction with taking more exercise. Some of the fad diets could damage health.

Trans-fats should not be a major problem nowadays. Reputable manufacturers have decreased or eliminated them and a small amount will do no harm.

I urge you not to take or encourage others to use supplements except on medical advice. Making and selling these products is now a huge industry, selling people products they do not need. It is usually a harmless waste of money but some supplements (e.g. vitamin A and vitamin D) are harmful if taken in excess. The purveyors sometimes misuse science to convince people that they need these products. It is a disgrace.

Education is very important but I strongly advise you avoid using any books or websites that promote nutritional supplements. The NHS advice is good and any books used in school or university teaching should be fine.


There is only one person who is responsible for tackling obesity and that is the individual themselves.

No amount of “nudging” is going to make any difference and the pious position of the authorities/media in this matter is frankly abhorrent.

How someone lives their life is their choice, if it isn’t affecting/influencing you then you have no right to try and force people to change their lifestyles.

If people use the NHS as a stick to try and win this argument then that is flawed because we might as well all just sit at home and not go out. We should not play sports, we should not eat any processed food, we should not drive, smoke, play too many computer games, play extreme sports, get on a plane, or go anywhere or do anything that “might” endanger our health.

Either it’s all OK or none of it is, focussing on one group of people is prejudiced.


Without any effort from the government our parents could have been drunks, heroin addicts, heavy smokers and criminals. Helping people to behave themselves without unnecessarily interfering with their lives is a delicate balance.

What has changed in the last 60 years is that most people can afford to buy more food than they need to eat, many of us have a more sedentary lifestyle, supermarkets sell an enormous amount of pre-prepared food, and using take-aways or eating out have become more common.

We don’t just need to educate children into healthy eating. Many adults need help too.

Sophie Gilbert says:
2 April 2012

Totally agree with Wavechange, a nice summary of the situation nowadays and the tightrope our government has to walk on. It can’t let us sink or swim. It can’t take away our freedom. And with this freedom comes our own responsibility.