/ Health

How can we promote healthier food choices?

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the Government, explains how the country can tackle obesity.

This is a guest post by Professor Dame Sally Davies. All views expressed are Sally’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

We all know that obesity is a huge problem in this country, particularly for children. One in three children are now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school and we have some of the highest levels of obesity in Europe.

We are putting our young people at risk of developing dangerous, chronic conditions like cancer and heart disease that could take years off their life.

There are many factors that have led to this crisis, but there is no doubt that our food environment makes it hard for us to choose healthier options and we are overloaded with promotions and temptations for sugary and fatty foods on a daily basis.

Recent data from Cancer Research UK shows that promotional offers are heavily skewed towards unhealthy options and encourage us to buy more of those products.

We all have a responsibility for our health, but the Government can help shape our environment to make the healthier choice, the easy choice.

Unhealthy items at checkouts

The Department of Health and Social Care is currently consulting on restricting promotions of products that are high in fat sugar and salt (HFSS) by location, for example at checkouts, and by price.

People have said loud and clear that they want healthier food to be more affordable – and supermarkets could offer healthier products on promotion such as fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and fish, and all those foods that form part of a healthy balanced diet.

We know parents feel under pressure to buy more sugary and fatty products simply because they are strategically placed in stores.

Polling has shown that 83% of parents have been pestered by children to buy food at checkouts with 75% giving in and buying something through ‘pester power’.

I often see checkout areas stacked with chocolate and sweets, even in shops where you would not expect to find any food in the first place, like clothes shops.

In fact, new research from the UK Health Forum shows unhealthy food and drink are widely available in non-food retail environments. This is helping fuel a culture of overconsumption.

Impacting our children’s health

This is not about banning all promotions or making the shopping basket more expensive. This is about products that are high in sugar, fat and calories and therefore have an impact on our children’s health.

Therefore, the focus is only on those types of ‘volume’ promotions, such as ‘buy 2 for the price of 1’, where people buy more items to benefit from the discount. Evidence shows us that these offers make us buy over 20% more that we otherwise would have, and inevitably we consume more as a result.

Overtime, an unhealthy environment which prompts unhealthy rather than healthy actions has become dominant.

I believe we must fundamentally reposition health as the nation’s primary asset.

We can shape our environment to promote healthier choices, which reduce health inequalities, improving economic growth while helping people live healthier lives.

This proposal can really improve our environment and will have a significant impact on the health of our children in the years to come.

I encourage everyone to respond to the Government’s consultation by 6 April to make sure your views are heard.

Alistair Moulden says:
29 March 2019

Place mirrors behind the products. Or, better still, promote the High Street. Devolve decision making away from councils and give power to Public Health instead. Best to have qualified people making decisions of this magnitude.

These foods are produced and retailed. This means that they are available to the public to purchase. The questions then are: do we ban them from the shelves; make them more expensive; ration them or simply increase public awareness of what they are buying? I don’t see anyone actually forbidding the purchase of these foods or restricting the amount that can be bought. We live in a society that (mostly) allows its citizens to buy what they wish. Education in school, and information to the public can help here, but the supermarkets are not going to clear their shelves, because unhealthy foods are still edible and won’t actually poison those who eat them in the short term. They also want to promote sales of all foods and do so by offering deals – two for one’s and special offers. It is, at present, up to the shopper to buy what they need and can use. I hope most of us will consider multi-buying things that will store or can be consumed by a whole family without wasting the produce or their money. Budget will dictate what is bought and the good basics that can be made into meals at home should be affordable so that choice is not cheap and fat/sugary or healthy and expensive. Accepting the limits to supermarket stocking and selling and customer choice, the only alternative is to hammer home the message of healthy eating so that it becomes something that is accepted. I suppose that’s a sort of propaganda approach and it has to be used with care. The government could subsidise some basic foods to make them more attractive but it really needs a shift in public attitude and there are a limited number of options that can be applied before the government has to dictate what we eat. They won’t do that. They might, however, raise a charge for medical treatment if warnings have been given to patients and these have been ignored. Perhaps, too, the overstretched social services have a role to play stepping in to help those who don’t understand what they are doing to themselves and their families.

Obesity is the new smoking.

Not related to checkouts, but alcohol products have a warning for pregnant women not to drink alcohol, there is an indication of how many units there are in each bottle, and also a recommended limit to how many units of alcohol to drink per week or day. There should be similar warnings on products that are high in fat sugar and salt.

At checkouts (and elsewhere) there could be posters showing the BMI, pictures of body shapes & measurements with corresponding health warnings, such as the one used here: https://www.diabetes.co.uk/bmi.html

It wouldn’t get everyone thinking, but it would some.

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The methodology of previous research projects seems ot have been the target. “The best evidence comes from randomised trials. In these, some participants are helped to change their diet in a certain way, such as eating less meat, and the rest aren’t. At the end, the health of the people in the two groups is compared.

But such trials are costly and hard to do. According to one estimate, only about 5 per cent of nutrition studies are large, good-quality randomised trials. It is much more common to do research that just observes what people choose to eat undirected. Known as observational studies, these are notoriously open to bias and can give misleading results.”

Researchers are, however, questioning the latest studies led by the Spanish and Polish Cochrane Centres, part of a global collaboration for assessing medical research. The truth is we don’t know for sure what relationships exist between red meat and cholesterol, whether cholesterol is actually bad for you, or whether the nitrites in processed meats really are carcinogenic.

But in effect nothing has changed; no scientists have ever come out and said that eating lots of red meat will cause cardio vascular disease. What has and does happen – repeatedly – is that the gutter press, desperate for headline news, re-word study conclusions to sound more exciting; in the immortal words of David Kelly they like to ‘sex up’ articles on health. Pity they don’t pay more attention to the reporting of factual events in an honest way.