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We must tackle obesity to improve the nation's health

Column by Dr Caroline Johnson, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham

Helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight is one of the most important things we can do to improve our nation’s health.

I recently spoke on this issue in the debate on implementing the Government’s 2020 Obesity Strategy.

Caroline Johnson (23271513)
Caroline Johnson (23271513)

As a consultant paediatrician, I have seen first hand a worrying rise in obesity among our children and the health complications that come with it. One in three children leaving primary school are already overweight with one in five living with obesity. This trend is further exacerbated in the most deprived areas of this country, where children are twice as likely to be obese as their peers in the richest areas. This is tragically setting up far too many young people for a lifetime of health complications, from diabetes to mental health, as well as reinforcing health inequalities.

In my experience as a doctor, the patients I see want to maintain a healthy weight but find it challenging to do so. This is not surprising given the food environment we live in today. In particular, eating out has gone from an occasional treat to a regular feature of our social lives, but we have very little information on how many calories are in the food offered. This is important because on average meals out contain more than twice as many calories as those prepared at home.

Accordingly, I welcome the Government’s proposal to introduce calorie labelling on menus, because it will empower people to make the healthy choices that they want to make. Nutritional information is already available on the food and drinks in supermarkets; expanding the practice to larger restaurants and cafés will help customers to make more informed decisions.

I am glad councils in Lincolnshire have taken the lead on this issue through the development of the ‘Healthier Options’ award. Participating businesses are supported to make healthy changes to their menu and food preparation and subsequently receive a certificate confirming they’re an official healthier options business. Through this scheme customers have a greater number of healthier food choices when eating out in Lincolnshire.

Although I welcome the push to reduce the sugar and calorie content of food, it is concerning that in efforts to reduce the calories on menus, food producers and establishments may make greater use of artificial sweeteners. Research has shown that the mismatch between the sweet taste and few calories provided by artificial sweeteners can confuse the body’s systems and lead to hunger cravings that result in the consumption of an even greater number of calories overall. We need to be careful to ensure that our efforts to reduce calories do not unintentionally create the opposite effect with artificial sweeteners.

Finally, education has an important role to play in tackling obesity. Today’s greater prevalence of eating out is in part due to the decrease in cooking skills at home. Education has a significant part to play by instilling healthy habits in young people and showing them not just what is healthy but how to make it, so that by the time they leave school they have good kitchen-safety skills and can cook simple, healthy and nutritious meals.

It will take time to see results from new interventions but it is crucial we are not afraid to take bold action. Empowering people to live healthier lives will greatly benefit both individuals and our NHS and I will continue to support these efforts.

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