Let’s start by saying that the blame for the obesity epidemic cannot be laid at a single door: to make such a claim would be irrefutably simplistic and counterproductive. However, it’s impossible to exculpate food companies for hurrying the process along.
A Bad Week for UK Health
Two bombshell pieces of news came to light last week. The first was the revelation that spending on junk food advertising is almost 30 times what the government shells out on promoting healthy eating. The second, that child and teenage obesity levels have increased ten-fold in the past four decades, meaning 124 million boys and girls are now overweight.
Let’s start logically with the advertising story, which broke on October 11 to coincide with World Obesity Day. Using data from The Grocer magazine’s top 100 list of advertising spending by consumer brands (those in the business of promoting sugary drinks and calorific confectionery), the analysis indicated that such firms spent £27 on advertising for every £1 spent by government on healthy eating promotion.
The study, which was conducted by the Obesity Health Alliance, laid bare the financial disparity at the root of the latest obesity figures. Cadbury’s Dairy Milk sits atop the list of big spenders, pouring £12 million into its advertising efforts – more than double what the government forks out on its flagship healthy eating campaign.
It’s even more alarming when you consider that the UK spends more than £14 billion each year treating conditions caused by excess weight – heart disease and diabetes to name just two. Surely more than £5 million can be directed towards preventing such conditions coming about in the first place? Especially since forecasts estimate that annual obesity-related health costs will soar to £22.7 billion by 2025.
Worryingly, advertising budgets across the confectionery market actually rose by 13% in 2016; almost 20% of the top 100 brands are junk food companies. It is too easy to say that people know what they should be eating to be healthy; the odds are heavily stacked in favour of big business and many of us – particularly children – succumb to temptation.
The Obesity Health Alliance is now demanding that the government restrict children’s exposure to such marketing across all media prior to the 9pm watershed. The government have responded by insisting that current restrictions on junk food advertising are among the toughest in the world.
Can the powers-that-be really do more without impinging on commercial freedoms? That is the question set to define policy in the years to come. Certainly the soft drinks industry has been transformed in recent years, with the introduction of taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks, leading to more low-sugar/no-sugar options on our shelves than ever before. It’s encouraging, too, that sales of bottled water have grown year-on-year since 2012 – even if the environmental impact is troubling. Of course, we would recommend using a long-lasting filter jug to give the best kind of drinking water, with the added benefit of reducing your carbon footprint.
Seemingly Unstoppable: Child and Teen Obesity
Is the increase in child obesity since the 1970s really so surprising? The new figures published in The Lancet looked at trends in over 200 countries and cited the availability and promotion of cheap, fattening food as one of the key drivers. The study was led by Imperial College London and the World Health Organisation.
In the 21st-century, major food companies (Nestlé, McDonald's) are spending a fortune enmeshing themselves in more and more low- and middle-income countries. They have also begun to penetrate Third World markets, bringing health problems linked to obesity (diabetes, heart disease) to countries which once suffered from crippling hunger. In East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, there has been a marked shift from underweight to obesity within a matter of decades.
North America continues to wage its own battle with obesity; nearly 40% of adults and 19% of its young people are obese, the highest rate the country has ever seen. Since 1999-2000, there has been a 30% increase in adult obesity and a 33% increase in youth obesity, all in spite of government-focused efforts to tackle the problem.
So What’s the Answer?
That is the million dollar question. Changing these global trends is going to require a concerted joined-up approach comprising governmental intervention, responsibility on the part of advertisers and regulators, and better educational programmes.
Family also plays a huge role in curbing obesity; habits and attitudes inculcated from a young age can have a long-term detrimental effect. According to one report published in May 2018, half of British mums and dads have "given up" trying to get their kids to eat five-a-day.
Only by replacing nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods with wholesome alternatives, and better promoting physical activity, will people get on a better path. Until then, the global health crisis will continue and very possibly worsen.
Post updated: May 2018.