The Covid-19 outbreak in the UK has demonstrated that inequality kills. So, who will the ‘Better Health Plan’ benefit?
On Monday 27th July, the UK government published the policy paper ‘Tackling Obesity: Empowering Adults and Children to Live Healthier Lives,’ which unveiled the ‘Better Health Campaign’ in attempt to tackle the “obesity time bomb [which] has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link with an increased risk from COVID-19.”
The policy will ban TV and online adverts which market food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm and end deals such as buy-one-get-one-free on foods considered unhealthy. Restaurant and cafè goers will also see calorie labelling displayed on menus, while venues serving alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’.
The plan comes with a campaign video featuring Boris Johnson explaining his personal experience of weight loss since recovering from Covid-19. The Prime Minister encourages people to lose weight to lessen the strain on the NHS, claiming “if you get your weight down, and protect your health, you will also be protecting the NHS,” encouraging people to “bring down their weight a little bit, not in an excessively bossy or nannying way”.
Alongside the policy, the government reported that “obesity is one of the biggest health crises the country faces. Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and 1 in 3 children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year.”
For years, the government has been tiptoeing around the subject of obesity, yet this is another policy which misses the mark, failing to tackle the root cause of worsening health: food poverty and inequality. In 2019, the House of Commons library published figures revealing that 4.2 million people were living below the poverty line in the UK – and these figures have not been formally updated since the rise in unemployment and poverty this year.
The Covid-19 outbreak has demonstrated that inequality kills. Although the virus doesn’t discriminate based on wealth or appearance, social inequality is a huge factor which contributes to worsening health. In the ‘Disparities in the Risk and Outcomes From Covid-19’ report, the government acknowledged that “the mortality rates from COVID-19 in the most deprived areas were more than double the least deprived areas, for both males and females” and other findings such as “people of Bangladeshi ethnicity had around twice the risk of death when compared to people of White British ethnicity.” Yet, the surface level nature of the ‘Better Health’ campaign, exemplifies the government’s widespread ignorance towards how the wealth gap and racism contribute to worsening health, by failing to assist the communities most affected by Covid-19.
Through the policy, people will be encouraged to prepare meals from scratch and exercise more frequently; activities which are more doable for those who already enjoy a middle-class lifestyle, who have the economic freedom to explore different foods and purchase a bike or gym membership. Whilst, poorer families who rely on buy-one-get-one-free deals will have increasingly limited options for budget friendly food shopping.
The government has long placed blame on ‘junk’ food for obesity and poor health, yet they have failed to regulate rising food prices and food inequality. Those who work long-houred, low-paid jobs will experience limited daylight hours, meaning less time to exercise and to prepare nutritious meals. For many families, cooking meals from scratch is both expensive and time consuming, cheaper foods that are quicker to prepare and more filling, are usually higher in fat, salt and sugar. Moreover, cheaper housing usually has less storage space for the full range of ingredients necessary to prepare a nutritious meal.
In many working class homes, there is limited outdoor space to exercise, whilst running or walking in urban spaces can be dull and unpleasant with pollution and traffic.
Since lockdown began, the wave of unemployment has created a sharp rise in food insecurity and outright hunger. There were 1.5 million universal credit claims made between 13 March and 9 April, official figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) have confirmed. New figures from the Trussell Trust, one of the UK’s biggest foodbank networks, show that across April there was an 89% increase in need, compared to the same period last year. With these examples of economic crisis, inequality and increasing poverty glaring the government so blatantly in the face, it is difficult to fathom why the government has overlooked such deprivation through this anti-obesity plan.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the health secretary, Matt Hancock noted “if everyone who is overweight lost five pounds it could save the NHS over £100m over the next five years.”
The emphasis on individual responsibility is harmful here, which places blame on individual lifestyles rather than recognising collective patterns of poverty and inequality. A heavy focus on individual-based approaches to “obesity,” particularly when programs overlook economic and environmental factors, contribute to the societal shame and stigma which are a product of fatphobia.
It is also worth noting that somebody who is considered typically “overweight” can live a healthy and active lifestyle. The policy assumes that weight is a key predictor of health whilst ignoring that body sizes sometimes vary depending on genetics, hormones, medication and other health conditions. Indeed, living with severe obesity has scientifically proven to reduce life expectancy and increases the chance of serious diseases such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes – but this doesn’t mean that people who appear ‘obese’ should be stigmatised.
Hancock’s words which link losing weight with saving the NHS, begs the question: are we now fat shaming to save our NHS? Millions ventured from behind closed doors to clap each week during lockdown, an 100-year old man walked countless laps around his garden raising £32 million for the NHS – the national institution which has been so critically underfunded yet so ironically praised – is government now displacing responsibility onto “obese” people to save NHS money?
Calorie Labelling and Eating Disorders
The implementation of calorie labelling on restaurant and café menus is another example of government oversight. The policy aims to encourage people to make more ‘informed’ choices with food. To some, this policy might act as a helpful guideline if they regularly dine out of the home. For many, this policy is harmful. In the UK, 1.25 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder. Calorie counting can be a major trigger for people with eating disorders and detrimental to recovery, calorie counting can also be the root cause of disordered relationships with food and diet culture.
Andrew Radford, the Chief Executive of BEAT, the UK’s eating disorder charity, has noted in a statement; “requiring calorie counts on menus risks causing great distress for people suffering from or vulnerable to eating disorders, since evidence shows that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds.” Calorie labelling policy will be harmful because it aims to regulate an entire nation’s eating habits as though they are all the same.
Covid-19 has exposed the broader link between social inequality and worsening health. It has exposed the need for a government that can deliver legislation which tackles root causes of societal inequalities, not policies which fail to even scratch the surface. Blaming obese people for the strain on the NHS distracts us from how crucially underfunded it is and how its employees remain underpaid, where many haven’t received a pay rise in years. Attributing blame towards the individuality of obesity distracts us from the real reasons why the UK, according to the WHO, has the fourth highest Covid-19 death toll worldwide. If the government can’t effectively recognise and tackle the brazen economic deprivation and inequality within the UK, they won’t be making any savings on their NHS bill.
Stop the Calorie Count Plan (UK Parliament)
Edited by Halim Kim