NHD blogger Farihah Choudhury reflects on Boris’s ‘Better Health’ scheme and the release of the National Food Strategy, which is the first major review of the UK food system in 75 years. What do the ensuing reports say and what is the reaction amongst nutritionists, dietitians and other healthcare professionals?
It’s a formidable time for UK food policy. On the week beginning 27th July 2020, two major policy announcements were shared, firstly in the form of the UK Government’s new obesity strategy, which involves various anti-obesity measures as well as the ‘Better Health’ scheme led by Public Health England. The second announcement was part one of Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy which is the first major review of the UK food system in 75 years.
Both of these follow the Lords Food Report Hungry for Change: fixing the failures in food, published earlier in July, which addresses the intersection between food poverty, sustainability and health. In this report, the committee called for urgent action to stop excessive advertising of unhealthy and processed food, to encourage industry reformulation of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods; to ensure children from disadvantaged backgrounds can eat healthily; and to set up an independent body to regulate the implementation of the National Food Strategy.
UK GOVERNMENT OBESITY STRATEGY
Aim: ‘Tackle obesity and help adults and children to live healthier lives’, including acting as damage control due to the effect of excess weight on coronavirus outcomes – diverting deaths, health complications and protecting the NHS.
- Removing buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) offers on HFSS products and adjusting their placement in stores and online.
- Removing the marketing of unhealthy foods pre-9pm on the television.
- Launching the ‘Better Health’ campaign, which includes an app-based 12-week plan commissioned through the NHS.
- Requiring eateries with 250+ staff to provide calorie labels on their sold food.
- Providing calorie labelling on alcohol.
- Expanding weight management services provided through the NHS.
- Publishing a UK-wide public consultation on the ‘traffic light’ labelling system.
Most healthcare professionals appear to agree that this call for action is long overdue in response to the unhealthy food environments cultivated in the UK, and the rising prevalence of overweight and obesity. The restriction of pre-9pm HFSS advertisements is a fair intervention that does not compromise any individual’s right to food, instead giving families more agency over their choices. Restrictions of placement of HFSS in-stores and online carries the same merit. However, removal of the BOGOF offer on HFSS has gained more criticism – families who rely on packaged, convenience goods to keep children full and placated will face restrictions on what they can buy. A double-duty action might have been to lower the price of fresh fruit and vegetables and other healthy snacks such as nuts, but removing a choice without providing an alternative may have negative consequences for many.
Our departure from the EU provides an opportunity to update the current voluntary ‘traffic light’ labelling system on packaged food products. This consultation will explore the most current evidence. Effective labelling has a double-barrelled effect of not only empowering consumers but more importantly to encourage industry reformulation.
The caloric labelling of restaurant items appears to be at odds with the Government’s pledge to ‘Eat Out to Help Out’. Many have argued that the focus on calories may lead to disordered relationships with food, which focus only on a number. On the other hand, caloric labelling of alcohol is perhaps a good step to take, since it is generally consumed only on occasion as an addition to a meal, and consumers are often unaware of the number of calories it contains.
Lastly, the lack of mention of involvement of nutritionists or dietitians in delivering this strategy, instead adding workloads to primary care professionals such as nurses and GPs, seems insulting to many; offering ‘incentives’ to doctors for offering weight loss advice seems to be a dubious decision. The ‘Better Health’ 12-week plan itself has been criticised for focusing too heavily on weight loss and ‘calories out’, rather than whole-person, sustained physical and mental wellbeing.
NATIONAL FOOD STRATEGY: PART ONE
Aim: ‘Recommendations to support this country through the turbulence caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and to prepare for the end of the EU exit transition period on 31 December 2020.’
- Expand free school meals (FSM) eligibility to include every child up to the age of16.
- Extend support for children eligible for FSM to include the summer holidays.
- Increase the value of Healthy Start vouchers to £4.25 per week and expand eligibility.
- Extend work of food and other essential supplies to the vulnerable taskforce for another 12 months.
- Only agree to new food trade deals that meet core standards.
- Commission an independent report on all proposed trade agreements.
- Give Parliament appropriate time to scrutinise new trade deals.
Most have commented that Part 1 is promising, providing a good starting point for the action needed to transform the food system. However, it is acknowledged in the Strategy itself that a lot more work needs to be done in Part 2. Many are in agreement – Part 1 does not appear to cover the breadth of the issues in trade as well as provision to the least privileged in the UK, with regards to increasing access to healthy sustainable food. Secondly, there is no focus in Part 1 on the climate emergency and the need to provide healthy but also sustainable food, ensuring too that the agricultural sector is resilient in this respect.
It will be interesting to see how both strategies develop over the coming months, and how nutritionists and dietitians might be involved in the process.
Read the reports
Current MSc Nutrition for Global Health student
Farihah is a Master’s student in Public Health Nutrition. She is particularly interested in food policy, non-communicable diseases as a result of changing food environments, sustainable diets and food culture and anthropology.