The growing rates of obesity in the UK are a much publicised issue, and familiar to us all in recent times. This is certainly the case for a struggling NHS, which bears a cost of at least 5.1 billion pounds annually, in treating an overweight population, thanks in part to increased prescription of obesity medication, and more frequent bariatric surgery (minimising absorption of calories in the gut/diminishing appetite), for those whose lifestyle and dietary changes have been unsuccessful. That goes without mentioning the human cost; increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease, stroke and related mental health conditions.
Obesity is described as an abnormal accumulation of body fat (usually 20% above the normal ideal body weight) to the extent that it has an effect on health. Ther public health definition of obesity puts additional emphasis on causative factors, such as ethnicity and socio-economic background.
According to estimates from Public Health England, two thirds of adults and a quarter of children between two and 10 years old are overweight or obese. This is coupled with record figures of morbidly obese children leaving primary school. Since there is a demonstrable body of evidence to suggest that obese children and adolescents are likely to become obese adults, this is a major concern.
Obesity has become a prominent public health issue, and one that merits the attention of ministers and policy-makers. So what can be done?
Government, industry and the public sector all have an important role to play. Levies have been raised on soft drinks high in sugar, with the revenue intended to supply breakfast clubs in schools, providing nutritional support to children from low-income backgrounds, who are at greater risk of obesity. There have also been improvements to the clarity of labelling, where the sugar content of foods is concerned. Rather than giving an overall sugar content, the content of specific sugars that are often over-consumed have been stated instead.
Additional assistance has been provided to healthcare professionals, with the aim of increased discussion about nutrition and physical exercise, with a special focus on those most heavily involved in primary education, such as healthcare visitors and school nurses.
Some of these new measures have provoked criticism from those who claim they will be ultimately ineffective. Many argue that the currently implemented sugar tax will lead to minimal health improvement, but job losses instead, for example.
In addition, there have been calls to ban fast food advertising on public transport and junk food advertising on TV before 9pm, although these suggestions have caused some controversy.
Regardless, the government has set a target for minimising obesity by 2026, when the success of these measures will finally be put the test.
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