On July 27, England’s new ‘obesity strategy’ was unveiled, and it acted as a stark reminder of just how easy it is to sail through the aisles and find that you’ve accidentally put a bar of chocolate in your shopping basket when you get to the tills.
With a lot of unhealthy foods hailed under ‘BOGOF’ banners in supermarkets, the government seems to have finally recognised the economic disparity around the country and just how influential wealth is on good health.
The sad fact is that value for money has risen to the top of the list of many families’ shopping lists, especially for lower income families, which have only been rising since the start of the pandemic due to job losses and workers being furloughed.
Under the new strategy, adverts for junk food now have a 9PM watershed across the UK, whilst ‘buy one get one free’ deals are to be scrapped and restaurants have to display calorie counts for the meals that they sell in England.
Initially, this sounds like a sensible step, especially since the majority of the UK population are ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and according to the NHS, one fifth of Year 6 children are classed as being ‘obese’– so any action to take control of this issue must be positive, right?
There is no doubt that being overweight or obese correlates with a poor general state of health, and the Coronavirus crisis has exacerbated this, with growing scientific evidence suggesting that the risk of being admitted into an intensive care unit with COVID-19 increases if you have excess weight.
Alongside many social issues surrounding housing and wealth, the Coronavirus pandemic has created a perfect storm of deteriorating public health – monetary belts have been tightened, people have been exercising less and more food has been eaten at home.
When lockdown restrictions began to ease in June, the lure of the ‘golden arches’ was tempting for many, even those on tight budgets, and this is partly where the government’s new strategy plays a part, as restaurants employing over 250 staff in England now have to provide calorie information on their menus.
In theory, this hands more power to the people, though this new strategy of calorie counting could further hinder the lives of people suffering from food-related mental health issues, such as anorexia, and force them to not eat out at all.
Alongside all of this, the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, which sees meal prices slashed to half their bill total from Monday to Wednesday throughout August, was launched to encourage more people to support their favourite local eateries.
This is where the launch of the new healthy lifestyle strategy contradicts the government’s recent messaging to splash the cash and eat out – its premise has the potential to serve as a lifeline to thousands of struggling restaurants and takeaways around the country, but a lot of these places don’t usually offer many ‘healthy’ dishes to conscientious consumers.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer, but what is clear is that any steps to make the country a healthier place must be a good thing. However, the government needs to be acutely aware of just how much damage their mixed messages could be inadvertently making. For some, this new strategy is going to act as the much-needed motivation to get healthier; the question is just how receptive the public will be to this new messaging.
It is easy to say that balance and moderation is key when managing your weight but with real lives at stake, having healthy citizens has surely got to be more important than short-term economic incentives promoted by the government’s eating out scheme.
What the healthy eating strategy does is certainly going to benefit the population, but swathes of people still can’t afford to eat a healthy diet, and will struggle even more if they are tempted to ‘eat out to help out’ in August. For those who can afford to eat out, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t need support either, and this new strategy could prove to be just as dangerous as taking no action at all.
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