Stephen Jones, CEO and Co-Founder at Nourish Fit Food, discusses how Britain’s obesity plan will continue to fail unless the concept of health itself is radically redefined
While the government’s obesity strategy was paved with good intentions, it sat within a far too narrow prism when addressing the multitude of factors that make obesity rampant in our society. This country is starving for a more holistic and constructive overhaul of our relationship with eating, physical activity, and mental health. To put it bluntly – banning junk food adverts before 9pm and slashing offers on sugary snacks was never going to come close to cutting the mustard. We need to swap diet promotions for a nutrition and lifestyle educational campaign.
It’s time to approach this pain point with a manifesto that leaves no part of the equation left out. First, we need to break down all the nonsense around what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food is and end stigmatising major food groups like fats, carbohydrates, and even sugar to some degree. Our plan needs to involve empowering the nation to understand for themselves what the right nutritional intake looks like and how accessible it really is.
The threat of COVID-19 needs to be treated as a powerful motivator rather than a weapon of fear to encourage commitments to a health and wellbeing agenda. Investment in initiatives for vulnerable communities disproportionately affected by obesity is a necessity if we want to undo what lockdown has contributed to the problem.
As a starting point, the government would be wise to fund programs connecting the public on a wider scale with personal trainers, nutritionists, and meal preparation providers. Only then will we see legs to the government’s cry for change. Let’s unpack what initiatives could make this mission a reality.
Weight management programmes
In the wake of a second lockdown, primary healthcare providers will be stretched and we are also unlikely to see a reversal of funding cuts to NHS obesity programmes. Local government services now need to take a new and urgent approach towards how to implement more efficient and practical assistance when encouraging the public to make health improvements.
One way forward would be to partner with registered nutritionists, dieticians and personal trainers to create virtual schemes to teach those restricted to their homes how to engage in healthier habits. In particular, these need to be prioritised for low-income groups where obesity rates are highest. Many specialists within these sectors will be on the look-out for ways to support their communities in times of hardship, therefore making it more accessible for local council’s in their outreach for support. A cost-effective way to do this from a physical health perspective would be to offer virtual PT sessions for groups. That way, personal trainers can teach proper form and bodyweight resistance training for people to do in their own homes. For instance, many individuals might not be aware that alternative types of resistance training can play a greater role in fat loss than steady state cardio that can wreak havoc on joints.
Another way to alleviate pressure from the long-term effects of poor diet is to allocate budget towards nutritional meal preparation programmes. For those that are at greater risk of developing health conditions, particularly in light of the link between coronavirus and obesity, there’s a chance to provide a solution. For those with poor quality nutrition, the switch to meal preparation with solid nutritional macro- and micro-nutrients can make a tangible difference in a matter of weeks. Not only will this help encourage lasting dietary habits as a result of feeling motivated by the results, but can also help bolster immunity in a time where it’s needed most.
Access to healthier food and knowledge
Greater access to affordable and nutritious food is extremely important when truly creating wider change around improving the nation’s health. Density of fast food outlets and constrained choice are key contributors of obesity prevalence in disadvantaged areas yet little has been done to adjust the circumstances that undermine access to healthier alternatives. Making efforts to reduce access to unhealthy food outlets, while providing a clear route to the healthier alternatives at the same price is paramount to ensuring people’s environments are built to more effectively support their health.
Instead of offering ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ on high in sugar and saturated fat foods, retailers need to create the same, if not better offers on fruits, vegetables, and high in protein food groups. A food innovation fund backed by food retailers that targets those on low-incomes is one such way to frontier projects that enable better access to healthier foods. Doing so will create an easier path to better eating habits and reducing obesity risk.
The burden of financial strain that contributes to obesity-related health inequalities needs to be tackled in how it’s addressed. Eating well and affordably are not mutually exclusive. Education plays a huge role in making this clear to the public. It is possible to eat well on a tight budget, the wider public just needs greater direction on where to look. Funding nutrition educational programmes that help take pressure off of families who have to manage challenging schedules as well as the food shop is a good place to start when presenting low-cost meal preparation.
A necessary shift in mentality
The narrative around obesity and fatness also demands an important shift. Demonising overweight people and inflaming a narrative of fear around the far harsher risks of their likelihood of catching coronavirus will have few positive effects and will only exacerbate negative mental and physical health.
Current levels of physical inactivity are reflective of personal attitudes about time, cultural and societal values. The era of COVID-19 has also signalled a massive shift to inactivity as the usual movement in our day, even if it’s just to the office is now eliminated. What is needed now as we enter the second lockdown is a shift in mindset towards helping people see and want the benefits of better physical health.
If people of all ages can engage in a new way of thinking about active lifestyles, better health can be a realistic goal for all. Exercise needs to be viewed as fun and enjoyable, not an unnecessary and fear driven effort. The public needs to be motivated firstly, then adhere to a program in order to make it a habit which is when activity is integrated as a regular part of daily life.
As health and wellbeing leaders, we need to think about the best ways to approach the psychological process which underlie the decision to start, continue or withdraw from physical health participation. If we can better cater to helping adapt the negative attitudes and beliefs around body image and emotional responses to food for those managing obesity, we will see a more beneficial outcome around their vulnerabilities. Rather than stigmatising those that need support to make a shift to improve their diet and physical wellbeing, we all need to do our part to make this a more welcoming and accessible setting.
The absence of effective messaging and initiatives around how obesity can be approached for those that need and want to improve their health is stark. With COVID-19 set to continue it’s grasp on our traditional routines, there needs to be more productive proposals circulated to support people when looking for ways to improve their immune systems and overall well-being.
Solutions such as greater access to meal preparation providers, nutritionists and personal trainers are a step forward in the right direction, it’s now a case of working collectively with local councils and the wider government to make this a reality.
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