On Monday 27 July, the Department of Health revealed it would be implementing a number of measures across the UK to “tackle obesity”. They include, but are not limited to, banning TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm, bringing an end to ‘buy one get one free’ deals on unhealthy food and displaying calories on menus across restaurants.
Understandably, the campaign provoked widespread backlash. Nutritionists, activists and members of the public alike all highlighted its clear failure to acknowledge wider environmental and biological factors which cannot be combatted through food restrictions, as well as perpetuating dangerous stigmas.
The Government have previously exhausted similar methods of ‘tackling’ obesity to no avail, such as the NHS Five a Day and Change4Life campaigns. Despite this, they are continuing with this tried, tested and failed behavioural approach to obesity. By treating obesity largely as a result of individual choice, the Government is perhaps unsurprisingly neglecting to account for its own role in the so-called ‘obesity crisis’: the rise in poverty.
The correlation between poverty and obesity is well-established, with studies showing time and again that those living in poverty are often unable to choose more nutritious meals in a bid to keep costs low. Children whose parents may have to work more than one job in order to stay afloat often have to cook for themselves. This leaves parents with little choice but to purchase convenient, easily made meals often high in calories in an attempt to keep their child fuller for longer. These same meals are now being targeted under the government’s new strategy, as it sets out to scrap ‘two for one’ deals.
Levels of in-work poverty in the UK have soared over the past decade due to years of austerity and growing inequality. Whether intentional or not, the impact of the Government’s latest ‘obesity strategy’ on poor families across the nation will be devastating.
Leading a healthy lifestyle is a luxury not accessible to all. Abigail Scott Paul explains that “the unstable environment of poverty is one where contemplating healthier aspirations against a predictable backdrop is something of a privilege for the better-off.”
In treating body weight as an autonomous choice which can be amended at will through calorie counting and government-imposed restrictions of high fat, salt and sugar foods, the Government is disingenuously laying the blame at the hands of those with no alternative. In fact, it only serves to deprive them of further choice through banning such deals, while doing nothing to increase access to healthier alternatives. The consequences will likely be dire.
The consequences go beyond the socioeconomic repercussions. The campaign positions those living with obesity as a burden on the NHS by heavily stigmatising an already discriminated group and treating them as no more than economic commodities.
The Government’s contradiction in policy over the recent weeks has led many to believe that this is no more than an attempt at scapegoating plus-sized people to detract from its own neglect of the NHS. This obesity strategy comes following the Government’s nationwide promotion of its ‘eat out to help out’ campaign which offers the public 50% off meals at restaurants and fast-food chains. The irony is not lost on those now being targeted to lose weight.
This insinuation that NHS pressures and economic burdens will only worsen as a result of those living with obesity is both dangerous and manipulative. After over a decade of underfunding the NHS the Government now turns the public’s attention to obesity.
We need only turn our eyes to mainstream media to see this narrative. In a recent interview with Channel 4, British chef Jamie Oliver described how “the cost of ill health in society […] is an economic conversation”. The chef continues to claim that any economist will tell you that a fitter, healthier and more agile Britain is profitable. A false concern for public wellbeing has been exposed by this language that places value of human health on profitability. Previously, this rhetoric has proved fatal.
Stigmatising plus-sized individuals as an economic strain is a cruel, reactionary tactic which only serves to discourage and shame those implicated from accessing healthcare when needed. One report found that 68% of women at the highest levels of obesity reported a delay in seeking health care because of their weight, and 83% reported that their weight was a barrier to getting appropriate health care.
It seems increasing likely that behavioural approaches to weight-loss are extremely flawed, and in many cases, counter-intuitive. Engaging in weight loss dieting can in fact have the reverse effect, with dieters going on to gain weight instead.
Equating health to weight is problematic within itself. Weight-centred health has faced mounting criticism in recent years, with the media moralising on what it deems the ‘ideal’ body for health while neglecting scientific evidence.
Little attention is given to the fact that physiological characteristics including weight are heavily influenced by genes and exposure to biophysical and socioeconomic environments. Beyond this, rarely mentioned is the fact that the largest epidemiological study ever conducted found that those deemed a “healthy” weight had a lower life expectancy than those with a BMI between 34 and 36 (the obese category).
If the Government truly wishes to address the health consequences of obesity, providing increased access to nutritious food would be a good place to start. Until social inequality and poverty is addressed, the Government’s obesity strategy is meaningless. Restricting low cost, high calorie foods is not the answer, and those who will suffer this unwarranted surveillance disproportionately are women, the poor and minorities.