Nutrition, obesity and fitness - bathtubs and sofas

By John Freeman

| 28 November 2016

Yet another feature of life for "just about managing" and "not quite managing" families (JAM/NQM) is that cheap food is often less nutritious and sometimes actively bad for you, but if it's all you can afford you have no alternative as it fills your children's bellies. The problem of poor nutrition is not just linked to poverty, of course, but there is a really clear correlation. For evidence, don't take my word for it, take a walk down a high street in a deprived area, and again in an affluent area, and count the food outlets. My universal experience is that fried chicken and burgers, kebabs and noodles are far more prevalent in deprived areas, while pop-up healthy eating is always located where the affluent can pick it up on the way home, or at lunchtime.

The combination of excess sugar, fat and salt, a deficit of fibre and trace nutrients, and a reduction in physical activity, is leading to an epidemic of obesity, but not just obesity, as there are many other health problems associated with poor diet and lack of activity. The dire prediction is that life expectancies - which have been increasing steadily over the years, largely due to better health care and, more recently, a reduction in smoking - will start to decrease. That is shameful.

UKActive says that child health is a ticking time bomb, and that the fitness of English children has deteriorated significantly even in the last two years, with Scottish children among the least healthy in the world. And while physical activity rates are declining (do you remember the so-called Olympic legacy? Where did that go?) young people are consuming ever more unhealthy diets - and, of course, the two are linked. If you are overweight, there is less incentive to be physically active, even if you can afford better food. Like many other activities, food is habitual - you get used to consuming certain foods in certain amounts and changing that habit is much harder than not acquiring it in the first place.

If you are ever in London, just opposite Euston Station is The Wellcome Collection - which has a superb free exhibition on obesity, diet and nutrition, as well as exhibitions that change from time to time, and a (healthy) café. I always pop in if I have half an hour to spare before I catch a train. I recommend it!

Only this week, Cancer Research UK reported that the average teenager consumed the equivalent of a bathtub full of sugary drinks every year. Of course, those trying to influence public and government thinking have to dream up catchy statistics of this sort, but this is a good one - 234 cans of fizzy, sugary drinks a year, two every three days, on average. I was given a can of Seven Up the other day, and I must admit I didn't even open it, as it contained 36 grams of sugar in 330ml. This size can contains more than twice the total maximum recommended sugar per day for a five-year-old - and while that age is many years behind me, I still don't want to consume that much sugar in one go.

Do you really think that a small levy on sugary soft drinks will make a huge difference? I don't.

The Obesity Strategy is a shameful abrogation of what the government could do for the public good. What we need is a proper, powerful strategy that joins up health, nutrition, obesity and physical activity, with incentives and disincentives that work across the whole system. The thinking is there - the Cabinet Office Foresight Unit did much of the work in 2008, and it's all in the public domain, but it has never been acted upon. What we have, instead, is a largely voluntary and ineffective approach. The British Soft Drinks Association said "Teenagers' sugar intake is down by 8 per cent" since 2012. That is 2% a year. And with Seven-Up and Cola that is the equivalent of about a 3 gram reduction in 36 grams. Self-regulation never works without powerful incentives - the tobacco industry is perhaps even worse than the food industry on this.

And, of course, as I keep saying, the people who suffer most from this failed set of policies are children in JAM/NQM families. As citizens they deserve more from the government which is there to serve us.

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