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A government crackdown on obesity by banning “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy meals and a restriction on junk food adverts has been criticised as “hypocritical” and “victim blaming” by people on the ground who want to see the true causes of the health bomb tackled.
Boris Johnson has unveiled a raft of new measures that also includes restaurants displaying calorie counts on menus and junk food adverts being banned on TV before 9pm.
And GPs will be asked to prescribe cycling to overweight patients following a warning from Public Health England that obese people are at greater risk of hospitalisation and death if they become ill with coronavirus.
But experts have accused the government of ignoring the real causes and major factors of obesity – such as poverty and inequality depriving people of healthier choices.
They say it is easier to “victim blame” or target advertisers than face the “uncomfortable truth”.
Others have blasted officials for launching the obesity campaign while simultaneously trying to coax people into fast food outlets such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Pizza Hut with their “Eat Out To Help Out” discount initiative.
One 36-year-old mum who was forced to rely on food banks after plunging into poverty told HuffPost UK that people struggling financially are less likely to eat healthily as the foods that are the cheapest are not necessarily the healthiest.
The Yorkshire mum of a 14-year-old boy explained that even those with the best of intentions are less likely to buy fruit and vegetables and choose a healthy diet if money is an issue.
She also admitted that, although she is incredibly grateful for the food she has received from food banks, the food is more likely to be unhealthy as it is usually tinned and processed, while fresh produce is rare.
When you’re poor, the choice of eating healthily is taken away from you.
“Before we had to rely on food banks, I always cooked meals from scratch and tried to eat healthy and nutritious food,” she said.
“But since using food banks – for which we are very grateful – foods high in salt and sugar have become a daily part of our life.
“The problem is things like pasta, rice, noodles and tinned food are staples of food banks. But if you are using them in your diet for almost every meal, it is not good long term.
“My son had never had spaghetti hoops but this is a regular food given out at food banks. When you’re poor, the choice of eating healthily is taken away from you.”
Financial poverty and time poverty are two major factors when it comes to obesity, Luke Billingham, a youth and community worker in Hackney, east London, told HuffPost UK.
“It is about being cash poor, time poor and not having access to the same things as more well off people,” he said.
“If you are rich, you might be a member of an expensive gym or maybe your company pays for a gym membership. You can afford to go to somewhere like Pret for a fancy £8 salad and you might have the leisure time to buy expensive ingredients and cook nutritious meals from scratch.
“But there are plenty of other people who would love to do these things but it takes more time and money than is available to them.
“Individual choices made by people is part of the obesity problem, but it is about what is available to people. If they don’t have the money to buy healthy food or are time poor as they are working two jobs and are stressed, they don’t have those same choices.”
If you are rich, you might be a member of an expensive gym or maybe your company pays for a gym membership. You can afford to go to somewhere like Pret for a fancy £8 salad.
Billingham says while companies that profit from advertising junk food do play a part in obesity, he wants to highlight that this is not the only factor and there are many other reasons the government needs to tackle.
But he believes the government is deliberately ignoring many factors as they played a part in creating some of the inequalities that exist.
“I think the government has got a myopic view of individual choice,” he said. “People can only make choices in the context of the options and opportunities available to them.
“Very little attention is paid to the day-to-day lives of people who are struggling financially.”
Billingham also pointed out that youth centres and leisure centres have been closed and school budgets have been cut. This means there are fewer free and easily accessible physical activities for people to engage in.
“The places that young people most love are the sports cages on estates – multi-use games areas where they can play basketball and football. Some are well maintained but others are neglected,” he said.
“If the government really wants to tackle child obesity, in my view, they would invest in things like these sports cages and in youth workers and community-based sports coaches, and put money into training young people to be sports coaches, too.
“But because it is the government who is responsible for removing a lot of these opportunities, it is an uncomfortable truth for them to face and it is convenient for them to blame individuals and advertisers rather than recognising the roles these things play in obesity.”
Billingham added that the families of young people he sees struggling with these issues are those who lack money, time and facilities: “It is all about inequality and these three things need to be addressed.”
Professor John Ashton, former north west regional director of public health, slammed the government for its “victim blaming” approach to tackling obesity.
“The thing about this government is that they do not believe in tackling things from the root cause,” he said. “They are all about blaming it on people’s individual choices.
“It is a victim blaming approach by saying: ‘It’s up to you, really,’ and blaming it on what people buy.
“They are very reluctant to interfere with the commercial sector because it is easier to focus on and blame the individual. But they need to go further upstream to the production of food and there need to be incentives for things like processing lean meat.”
Ashton told HuffPost UK the government measures such as banning junk food adverts until after 9pm are meaningless in his opinion.
“A 9pm watershed does not mean anything these days,” he said. “In this modern digital world, children are watching things on their tablets and on playback later on.
“They are playing with the advertisers – but they will simply find other ways to promote their foods.”
Obesity is a complicated issue and Ashton believes all the different factors need to be examined, not just individual choices, and the crisis needs to be addressed at its root.
He says it all stems back to inequality and poverty. “Poorer people end up eating cheaper foods and the fatty stuff, which costs less,” he said.
“If you look back to the Second World War when we had rationing, we had some of the most well nourished and healthy people as poor families were getting the same as everyone else.
“We had a very healthy generation of pregnant women and babies born during and after the war as poor families who would have been facing starvation were getting the same rations so there was equality.”
When we had rationing, we had some of the most well nourished and healthy people as poor families were getting the same as everyone else.
Ashton says it is a shortage of time as well as money that is a huge problem for many families today. “In the 1950s, most women did not work,” he said. “But now in many couples, both are working and one of the biggest issues is time shortage and the disappearance of family mealtimes.”
He told HuffPost UK education is another powerful weapon against obesity and he believes all children should get a free school meal. “School should be a place where all children should get balanced and nutritious food from a young age and get used to the taste of it as well as being educated about it,” he said.
“It is important obesity is tackled from infancy. It is the distortion of taste in childhood to salty and fatty food where you start losing the battle against obesity.”
Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, has also criticised the government’s measures to address obesity.
It has accused the government of putting the health of people affected by eating disorders at risk with things like calorie labelling and a promoted weight loss app.
Andrew Radford, Beat’s chief executive, said: “It is extremely disappointing the government has chosen to put at risk the health of people affected by eating disorders.
Without suitable safeguards, what could be useful in helping people with obesity risks harming people with eating disorders.
“We recognise the importance of addressing obesity but the risks of stigmatising and poorly considered campaigns on those affected by eating disorders must be taken into account.
“In particular, we are concerned that the campaign will encourage people with eating disorders to use the promoted weight loss app which fails to prevent under 18s or people with normal or low-weight from using it, despite it not being suitable for them.
“Without suitable safeguards, what could be useful in helping people with obesity risks harming people with eating disorders.
“It is also worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling as evidence clearly shows these risk exacerbating eating disorders of all kinds.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies says it is unlikely that extending advertising restrictions would lead to a large reduction in the amount of advertising for unhealthy food and drinks that people actually see.
This is because they feel firms could increase their advertising of these products after the watershed or on other types of media.
No.10 has denied it is sending out mixed messages by clamping down on “buy one get one free” promotions on unhealthy products while launching Eat Out To Help Out.
“The Eat Out To Help Out scheme applies to all restaurants and people will be able to choose a range of healthy options from the menus if they are struggling to lose weight.” the prime minister’s official spokesperson said.
“The scheme is aimed at protecting jobs in a sector hit very hard by the coronavirus pandemic.”