by Connor Taylor-Parton and Kyle Arthur.
Described as a “top public health challenge” in a government report, the obesity epidemic shows no sign of curbing its appetite. Across the UK, obesity rates continue to rise with approximately 63% of adults and 28% of children aged 2-15 are now classified as overweight or obese.
The consequences of obesity can range from life-threatening conditions including cancer, stroke and type two diabetes.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ charity, operating across Lambeth and Southwark in London, is determined to reduced the obesity rate, particularly in children that live in urban areas.“Childhood obesity affects a third of children over the age of 12,” a charity spokesperson told Artefact. “70-80% of the cause of childhood obesity relates to children eating too many calories, rather than being a result of too little exercise,” they add.
“Over the years, our environment has gradually changed in a way that encourages and promotes access consumption. From research with our partners, we’ve learnt that these everyday environmental cues have the greatest impact on what we eat.”
Despite these observations, the obesity epidemic is not a new phenomenon. In 2005 renowned TV chef Jamie Oliver launched a campaign aimed at reforming the menus served in schools, promoting healthier options to students across the country.
Following the star’s campaign, a petition regarding the unhealthy culture in Britain’s schools amassed over 270,000 signatures, prompting nationwide changes through government action. An additional £280 billion has since been set aside for healthy school meals, though some unhealthy foods still persist in school cafeterias nationwide.
While school meals have been at the forefront of tackling childhood obesity, Guy’s and St Thomas’ believe that adverse food environments in wider society also need to be addressed.
“Evidence shows that this isn’t an issue of individual will power or education. We need to work with families to understand the environmental challenges that prevent us from accessing a healthy diet, and tackle these challenges from all angles,” the charity said.
“By environmental cues, we’re talking about a convenience store whose checkouts are full of confectionary, a fast food outlet selling unhealthy food cheaper than healthier alternatives, bus stop advertising promoting unhealthy food or the influence our friends and family have on us.”
Notably, in February 2018, measures were introduced by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, to ban the advertising of unhealthy foods across all TfL [Travel for London] services, a move welcomed by activists.
Similar government initiatives aimed at changing food environments, such as the sugar drinks levy launched in April 2016, have also been praised by the group. Revenue raised the sugar tax would to wards school funding in primary schools nationwide.
“There’s some controversy over initiatives such as the sugar tax, no one wants to pay more for the products they enjoy,” the charity told us. “However, the majority of drinks companies avoided the tax by reformulating their products to reduce their sugar content below tax thresholds. This is a win-win, customers get to enjoy the drinks they like at the usual price but with less sugar. The sugar tax has in effect sped up the efforts of companies to reduce sugar in their products.”
Evidence has shown some correlation between the density of fast food outlets and childhood obesity.
Guy’s and St Thomas’ conducted research with Big Society Capital and the Food Foundation on market opportunities to tackle childhood obesity. As a result of this research, they discovered that while families with a lower household income eat out less frequently than those with more disposable income, they are still more likely to eat unhealthy foods from takeaways as they are more prominent in urban and deprived areas.
Focusing their research on the area of Lambeth and Southwark, the charity uncovered a much higher concentration of takeaway outlets compared to the more affluent areas of the city.
This evidence presents a strong case that particularly poorer areas have higher quantities of takeaway outlets. To combat this, some local authorities have implemented restriction zones which aim to limit new fast food outlets from opening close to schools or in city centre.
This method of combating unhealthy eating has been adopted in Wolverhampton. After a city council meeting, rules were implemented that prevented fast food shops from opening within 400 metres of a secondary school, and disallowed more than two takeaways can be next door to each other. Shopping centres and parades already oversaturated with takeaways will no longer be able to gain planning permission to open a new store.
Councillor Paul Sweet, cabinet member for public health and wellbeing, said: “Problems with obesity in Wolverhampton and the West Midlands are well documented.” Emphasising that Wolverhampton is late to the game in implementing restrictions on unhealthy food vendors, he adds, “this is only one tool in our armoury as we look to battle obesity but I think it can make a difference.”
Britain’s largest fast food chain, McDonald’s, disagreed with the proposal in its early stages. In a submission they stated: “Various studies showed that newsagents were just as influential on unhealthy food choices among children.”
Research emphasises the crisis posed by childhood obesity, with figures suggesting half of year six pupils in Wolverhampton are either overweight or obese. Research also found that for every thousand people in Wolverhampton, there is at least one hot food takeaway, compared to a national average of 0.86 per thousand.Councillor John Reynolds responded to this research by stating: “We know that healthy eating is something that will help people develop in the future. Healthier people are probably more educated people, people who would live longer and at the end of the day we’d hope to save the NHS some money.
“This will impact planning applications for what we would class as A5 takeaways, such as pizza shops and fast food shops,” he added. “It does not mean we will stop healthier food shops opening up.”
While action is being taken by both national Government and local authorities to combat the issues that lead to obesity, campaigners like Guy’s and St Thomas’ back in London claim these measures don’t go far enough.
“We’re layering up activities, working with many partners, community groups and residents to test and run projects that encourage healthy eating and physical activity in the places where children and families spend their time. Ultimately, we want to tackle the issue locally and learn lessons that others can replicate elsewhere,” the charity said.
Featured Image by i yunmai via Unsplash