UK’s Childhood Obesity Plan Disappoints – 80 Twenty Nutrition

UK’s Childhood Obesity Plan Disappoints

The UK’s childhood obesity plan has been subject to plenty of criticism at home and around the world since its release on August 18th. It’s been called “watered down”, “weak” and even “spineless“. Here’s what I had to say in my live interview with Beverly Thomson of CTV News Channel

Christy Brissette media dietitian 80 Twenty Nutrition interviewed on the UK goverment's childhood obesity plan by Beverly Thomson CTV News Channel

Does the U.K. government’s childhood obesity plan go far enough?

The U.K. government’s childhood obesity plan is extremely disappointing. As Chef Jamie Oliver put it, “so much is missing”. 

They had an opportunity to be world leaders in the fight against childhood obesity. Instead, they have taken a weak approach that many say will have minimal impact.

This is an issue that needs to be taken seriously. In England, nearly a third of children aged 2 to 15 are overweight or obese. Obesity doubles the risk of dying prematurely and increases the risk of a lengthy list of health problems, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and depression. It’s a health issue that has cost the NHS over 5 billion pounds a year.

Flaws with the UK’s Childhood obesity: A plan for action

My main issues with the UK’s childhood obesity plan are:

  •  It excludes policies on advertising of food and beverages to children. 
  • It ignores recommendation from Public Health England such as banning price-cutting promotions of junk food in supermarkets, such as multipacks and buy one get one free, as well as promotion of unhealthy food to children in restaurants.

  • The use of weak words such as “encourage” and “challenge” when talking about their approach to the food industry. The language used in the plan is incredibly vague. For example, they say they will try to improve food labels to help people make healthier choices. They say this “might include” having teaspoons of sugar on the front of the package. Great idea, but not exactly a promise!

  • The plan it says they will be “supporting” public sector settings like fitness centres and hospitals in offering healthier options. What exactly does that mean and what will this entail? Details are lacking throughout the plan. 

  • The introduction of a voluntary 20% reduction in sugar in products popular with children (this should be mandatory).

The focus on a single ingredient (sugar) misses the point: there is a need to increase the availability of overall healthier foods. Otherwise, the food industry just removes that one ingredient and replaces it with something else that could have negative health implications. In this case, not being more specific about what makes a food “healthy” means sugar could be replaced with artificial sweeteners, which are linked to metabolic disturbances and disruptions in gut flora.

Overall, the plan seems to put industry interests before the health of children and their nation: unacceptable

Christy Brissette media dietitian 80 Twenty Nutrition interviewed on the UK goverment's childhood obesity plan by Beverly Thomson CTV News Channel

Positive aspects of the UK’s childhood obesity plan: Tax on sugary beverages

One positive aspect of the plan is introducing a tax on sugary beverages and investing that money in programs to promote physical activity and balanced diets for kids.

The British government will be taxing drinks that have more than 5 grams of sugar per 100 mL, with a higher tax on more sugary drinks that have 8 grams or more per 100 mL. Industry has 2 years before the tax takes effect.

This is an important move because sugary drinks are the biggest source of sugar in children’s diets. 

To put the tax into perspective, let’s look at a can of pop. Currently, 1 can has about 9 teaspoons of sugar.

The recommended sugar limit for kids is about 5-7 teaspoons a day. Even if the pop is reformulated to have less sugar to avoid the tax, 1 can will still have more than 6 teaspoons of sugar, more than kids should be getting in a day. So while overall sugar intake may be reduced as a result of the tax, whether the reduction is enough to have an impact remains to be seen.

Does taxing sugary drinks fight obesity?

When Mexico enforced a 10% tax on drinks with added sugar, sales of taxed drinks dropped by an average of 6%.

Results of a British study predict that reducing added sugar in beverages by 40% over five years would lead to a reduction of about 1 million obese adults and prevent up to 9,000 obesity-related cases of type 2 diabetes cases in the U.K. over the next 20 years. 

Improvements to the UK’s childhood obesity plan: Recommendations for Canada and the U.S.

I’ve talked to the media about childhood obesity many times. Here are my thoughts on what we can do about it:

1. Marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children

We need to restrict the marketing of junk food to children. Prime Minister Trudeau has said this is one of his priorities and Dietitians of Canada has issued a position statement encouraging the Canadian Government to restrict advertising of all food and beverages to children and youth under 16 years of age. Research has shown that advertising of food to children works. Kids are able to influence their parents into buying the junk foods they see on TV and are likely to choose foods based on taste over other reasons.

2. Education on sugar and cooking skills are needed

Like the UK’s sodium reduction strategy, lowering sugar in food and the sugary beverage tax need to be paired with education around sugar-sweetened beverages. Many health organizations recommend that kids limit their daily intake of sugar-sweetened drinks to zero a day and drink mostly water.

Cooking skills are also needed so people can rely less on processed, packaged foods and more on fresh, whole foods to nourish themselves.

3. Reducing childhood obesity rates requires a multi-pronged approach

The UK’s childhood obesity plan includes some excellent ideas about making healthier foods and beverages available in schools and in recreation centres and hospitals. However, they need to put these ideas into action by creating policies that must be met.

We can’t expect to reduce obesity rates just by taxing less healthy beverages; we need to support the availability and sustainability of healthy foods.

The last word on the UK’s childhood obesity plan

The plan itself states its goal is to significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years.

If I had to bet on its chances for success, I’d say the UK plan isn’t going far enough. I expect we’ll see little if any impact from all of these voluntary changes.

Hopefully, Canada, the U.S. and other nations will take tougher stances on childhood obesity.

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