According to the latest statistics, 26 per cent of UK adults are obese and a further 38 per cent are overweight. Since 1993, the proportion of adults in England classed as either overweight or obese has risen from 52.9 per cent to 64.3 per cent. This is a problem — and a big one at that.

Dealing With a Growing Nation

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change estimates the cost of obesity in the UK at £98 billion. That’s almost 4 per cent of GDP, of which £35 billion is shouldered by the state and society. It is well known that obese people are more likely to need NHS treatment for diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and certain types of cancer. They are also likely to be more economically inactive (meaning, not actively seeking work) and will tend to spend more time out of work due to poor health.

So what are the obvious solutions? Like any issue that requires changing consumer behaviour, there is no magic wand. Predicting what consumers want, and how to respond to changing market conditions is as exact a science as divination. Sure, you can make predictions, but it is nearly impossible to know the full effects of policy changes until they have been implemented.

Having said this, some measures could provide the conditions for changing people’s habits. Firstly, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy announced by George Osborne in 2016 and implemented in 2018, should be expanded. The Institute for Government reports that the total amount of sugar sold in soft drinks between 2015 and 2019 fell by 35.4 per cent. Additionally, research from the Medical Research Council’s Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge University argues that this move may have prevented 5,000 more cases of obesity in Year-6 girls alone. Despite certain drawbacks, such as lower-income families being more likely to be hit financially by the levy, it can broadly be concluded that the policy has been a success.

Stretching the Parameters

Still, arguably more needs to be done. For example, the levy does not encompass fruit juices and smoothies — notorious for their high fructose content and lack of fibre (‘roughage’). They are the marketing ‘health drinks’ that tend to be consumed in large quantities. Then there’s the size issue. The average mug size in the UK is between 237 and 296 millilitres. Drinking a 250 ml mug of the cheapest fresh orange juice from Tesco translates to 117.5 calories out of a daily reference intake of 2,000, and 26.25 grams of sugar — or 29.17 per cent of the 90 grams of sugar recommended for adults aged between 19 and 64.

In comparison, an average-sized orange (weighing 140 grams), will only contain approximately 66 calories and 12 grams of sugar. It will also have around 2.8 grams of fibre, compared to the trace amounts in ordinary fruit juice. The importance of fibre cannot be overstated. Fibre slows down the speed at which fructose is absorbed in the body, helping us feel fuller for longer, which in theory means we will eat less.

Another issue with the levy is that it only applies to soft drinks. Given the staggering range of sweet, high-calorie products available in supermarkets, this hardly helps the nation change its food habits. From personal experience, even though I’m in reasonable shape, the temptation to buy a large sharing bag of sweets (and not share them), is often too hard to resist. However, if the price increased, there’s a chance I would start thinking and acting differently. Extend the ‘sugar tax’ to juices, smoothies, and other high-sugar, high-calorie products, and sweet treats may once again become treats rather than a staple of our diets. This small change may go a long way in helping us reduce the calories we consume, or at the very least improve the nutritional value of some of our bought foodstuffs.

The Bigger Issue

While eating a balanced diet rich in vitamins, fibre, and lean protein is essential for maintaining good health, another key ingredient is exercise. Burning the calories we consume is just as important as not overeating. An excess of calories normally becomes stored as body fat. Over time, this can lead to weight gain.

However, before you roll your eyes and mutter; ‘Who has the energy or time for exercise …,’ please know that exercise doesn’t have to mean running a marathon every other week, or doing 100 press-ups a day. Incorporating healthy amounts of fitness into your life can mean doing small things such as going for a brisk walk up a hill, or doing anything that raises your heart rate, makes you breathe faster, and helps you feel warmer.

The benefits of regular exercise speak for themselves. Not only does exercise reduce the risk of certain diseases, but it can also be a mood booster that helps with mental health issues and low self-esteem. Every child — and ideally every adult — should have something available to them that they enjoy. This could be a five-a-side on a weeknight, a parkrun on a Saturday morning, or a leisurely swim several times a week. In an ideal world, government funding should be made available for health and fitness organisations that need to maintain these community clubs. Even with the need for safeguards to prevent system abuses and poor allocation of government funds, investing in the nation’s health could be the best way of reducing the NHS’ budgetary pressures in the long run.

There is no getting away from the fact that obesity is a growing issue in the UK. So, let’s rise to the challenge, be bold with our policies, and make Britain a healthier, happier, more active and more productive nation.

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