School of Health and Society 30.07.20

Salford expert comments on government plans to tackle growing obesity problem

This week, amid growing evidence of a link between obesity and an increased risk from Covid-19, the government has announced new plans to tackle the nation’s weight problem. The plans include the banning of ‘buy one, get one free (BOGOF)’ offers on unhealthy foods in an attempt to reduce the quantity that individuals consume.

Dr Anna Robins

Dr Anna Robins (pictured), programme lead for Nutrition and Exercise as Medicine at the University of Salford, comments on the announcement: “Projections show that by 2050, 8 out of 10 adults and 5 out of 10 children will be overweight or obese - this will cost the NHS around £43.5 billion. Any attempt to reduce the amount of people who are overweight or obese is essential.

“Whilst some may view the government’s new strategy as somewhat of a ‘nanny approach’ to tackling the issue, I believe helping people make the right decisions is now essential. Unfortunately, due to the worrying and continual rise in obesity, it is no longer acceptable to rely on individuals to make healthy dietary choices.

“The reasons why people fail to lead a healthy lifestyle can be complex, with factors including knowledge, willpower, support, money and time being common barriers. Previous attempts have been made to educate people on how to make healthier choices, such as the introduction of traffic light systems and nutritional information being provided in take-away provision and restaurants. Unfortunately, these measures haven’t yet been proven to make much difference.”

Marks and Spencer have also been accused of ‘false virtue’ this week after advertising that their ‘Percy Pig’ sweets are ‘made with natural fruit sugars’ and contain ‘no artificial colours or flavourings’. 

Anna explains why these claims may be seen as problematic: ““It is essential that food companies advertise their products accurately, make people aware of the contents and also take responsibility for their part in influencing health and wellbeing.

“These advertising claims aim to convince consumers that Percy Pigs are perhaps suitable for children, but they are still ‘sweets’ and hence by nature are full of sugar. Just one of these sweets contains 4g of sugar, which is a 5th of the upper limit of sugar a 6-year-old child should be consuming in a whole day.

However, Anna is cautious that the new government strategy only tackles part of the problem. “Diet is of course not the only factor that can lead to weight gain. Evidence shows that the population are generally inactive with 1 in 4 women, and 1 in 5 men failing to achieve 30 mins of physical activity per week. It is essential people find the time to do some activity, which has an array of benefits to physical, social and psychological wellbeing, and make a considerable effort to be less sedentary.”

The University of Salford is fighting the rise in obesity by becoming the first university in the UK to launch an undergraduate course focussing on nutrition and exercise as medicine. Anna is the programme leader for the course, which is due to welcome its first students in September 2020.

Anna explains why the course is so important. “Understanding the importance of a healthy lifestyle and helping people make positive and consistent behaviour change requires specialised knowledge and skills. Practitioners need an in-depth understanding of underpinning scientific principles and to be able to incorporate changes into a person’s daily schedule. The art and science of exercise prescription and dietary intervention is tremendously complex and takes years to learn and perfect.”

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