The prime minister has launched a new policy on obesity in England.
This will not be the first attempt to tackle the problem – at least a dozen policies or white papers have been announced on the topic since 1997.
So, have 20 years of targets and policies had an impact?
Obesity reduction targets
In 2008, a wide-ranging report on obesity aimed to improve diets, increase exercise and form personalised help for tackling the problem.
It also introduced two key targets:
- The UK would be the first major nation to reverse the trend of rising obesity
- To reduce childhood obesity levels to 2000 levels by 2020
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a measurement of obesity that it works out by taking a sample of people from most countries and looking at their body mass index – or BMI – to see if they were a healthy weight for their height.
In 2008, 59.5% of adults in the UK aged over 18 were overweight or obese.
By 2016, the figure was 63.7%. This means that, at that point, the UK had the 30th highest proportion of overweight people of the 191 countries listed.
Looking at England only, the annual Health Survey for England suggests 63% of adults over 16 are overweight or obese.
But it suggests that while obesity rates have increased significantly from 1993, they have stabilised in recent years.
The second target was to reduce childhood obesity.
Using the Health Survey for England we can estimate that the proportion of obese or overweight two to 10-year-olds was the same in 2018 is it was in 2000 – a total of 25%. Over the same period, the proportion of overweight 11 to 15-year-olds increased from 31% to 34%.
Eating your 5-a-day
The 5-a-day slogan became government policy in 2003.
Since then, the proportion of adults eating five portions of fruit and vegetables a day has increased from about 24% to about 28%, according to the NHS’s Health Survey for England.
On average, adults ate 3.7 portions of fruit and vegetables a day compared with 3.4 in 2003.
However, the proportion eating fewer than two portions a day has remained roughly the same at 27%.
Reducing obesity inequality
The Conservative government’s child obesity strategy opened by saying “the burden is falling hardest on those children from low-income backgrounds”.
Over the past decade the gap in childhood obesity levels between the poorest and wealthiest had increased from 8.5 percentage points to 13.5 percentage points.
The UK introduced a tax on drinks that were high in sugar in April 2018. Companies have to pay:
- 24p per litre of drink if it contains more than 8g of sugar per 100ml
- 18p per litre of drink if it contains between 5 and 8g of sugar per 100ml
The policy was declared a success before it was even launched as manufacturers changed the recipes of their drinks to avoid paying the tax.
Between 2015 and 2018 the total quantity of soft drinks sold containing at least 5g of sugar per 100ml fell 50% while sales of drinks containing less than 5g per 100ml rose by 40%.
The amount of tax paid in each quarter since the levy was launched has been higher than it was in the first, suggesting the reductions in sugary drinks being sold have not continued.