Delaying junk food ads ‘til after the 9pm watershed, stopping two-for-one deals and slapping calorie counts on ultra-processed food are all very well, but these measures simply aren’t enough to tackle the root causes of the obesity crisis we face.
The campaign won’t help people make sustainable changes to their eating habits or weight because it fails to do enough to address our overconsumption of industrially made ultra-processed foods, the main cause of the obesity epidemic.
The government plastering calorie counts everywhere to try to force people to count calories, won’t help people lose weight or keep it off if a significant proportion of their diet continues to be made up of ultra-processed foods, because these foods have been designed to be addictive, so you crave them and eat more and more of them. The food industry isn’t stupid!
Giving incentives to Dr’s for referring people to old fashioned slimming clubs is misguided too. The severely calorie restricted diets they promote leave people hungry, malnourished and miserable. They encourage an unhealthy relationship with food; judging and choosing foods on their calorie content rather than their nutrient profile. Unsurprisingly, many people who do these extreme calorie restricted diets end up regaining all the weight they lost, and more!
Today, in the UK, around two-thirds (63%) of adults are above a healthy weight, and of these half are living with obesity.
And at the same time, more than half of the food bought by UK households is ultra-processed.
Ultra-processed foods include sugary cereals, salty snacks, industrially-made bread, cakes and desserts, ready-meals and sweetened soft drinks. Ultra-processed foods are high in calories, salt, starch, refined flours, sugar, cheap oil, saturated fat and lab-made additives like flavours, colours and emulsifiers but low in essential nutrients like protein, vitamins, minerals, fibre and other health promoting compounds.
Eating them leaves people overfed in calories but malnourished in nutrients and this is a recipe for metabolic dysfunction, appetite dysregulation, weight gain, obesity, poor health and early death.
If most of your diet is made up of ultra-processed foods, it’s a uphill struggle to resist buying and eating more of them because you constantly crave them, and at the same time they don’t feed you what your body really needs, which is nutrients, so they don’t satisfy you.
They set you up on a rollercoaster of blood sugar highs followed by crashes, which leads to metabolic changes, mood swings, more cravings, increased appetite and food binges.
The solution to obesity is a return to eating mostly real food (vegetables, fruit, meat, fish, nuts, seeds and pulses). These whole foods fill us up, balance our blood sugar levels, nourish our bodies, support our health and reduce our cravings for ultra-processed foods.
By eating mostly real foods you can also naturally, and easily, create a calorie deficit (using more calories than you eat/drink) which is essential for weight loss, without needing to count calories.
People on outdated, severely calorie restricted diets which still include many ultra-processed foods, describe weight loss as a constant struggle. In contrast, on a real food diet, weight loss is much easier, almost effortless. I know this from helping thousands of people lose weight and improve their health over the past 12 years.
So how do we encourage and help people to make these beneficial changes in their eating habits?
The answer is using food education as an intervention approach. Empowering people with nutrition education to increase their knowledge on healthy diet and lifestyle choices and the importance of eating healthy food for their well-being whilst introducing healthier school meals and food growing and cooking classes for children in schools.
The government also needs to introduce a broader tax on ultra-processed foods. The taxation on sugary drinks is a start, but it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. The millions of pounds raised from these taxes can be used to further increase nutrition awareness and health education and promote the health of the population.
The government also needs to do more to make healthy foods more affordable for lower income households by subsidising healthy foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, and sustainably produced fish and meat.
The government needs to act now to introduce these changes. The heavy costs of obesity and obesity related illnesses are a ticking time bomb for the NHS.