Government’s obesity strategy not working, research finds


The government’s campaign to encourage people to lose weight in order to reduce the risk Covid-19 poses to their health has been unsuccessful and largely ineffective, according to research.

The Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank found that, instead of basing its policy around individual calls to action, the government should take a “whole system” approach towards tackling obesity, including more investment in infrastructure and a consideration of how low incomes play a part in unhealthy lifestyle choices.

Earlier this year, to encourage individuals to lose weight to lower their risk of developing Covid-19 complications, prime minister Boris Johnson said: “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

However, just 28% of people living with obesity were taking steps to lose weight because of the pandemic, a survey commissioned by the SMF found. Overall, 20% of the 2,000 people surveyed, which included those not categorised as obese, were trying to lose weight.

Over a third (37%) of those living with obesity had not yet taken steps to lose weight in response to Covid but were thinking about doing so. Some 28% reported that the coronavirus would not lead them to reduce their weight.

Twenty-seven per cent of people with obesity said the pandemic had meant they ate a worse diet and 31% said it had led to them doing less exercise than before.

The SMF said that while government promotion of weight-loss apps and better food labelling could help some people, a “whole-system” approach to obesity should consider the way transport options, town planning, “food deserts”, mental health issues and even crime can contribute to obesity.

Close to two thirds (65%) of those polled agreed that people needed help to lose weight, and 32% thought the NHS should provide more people with surgical help to lose weight, such as through fitting gastric bands.

Scott Corfe, SMF research director said: “Warnings about Covid risks and obesity are well-meaning but largely ineffective – they just aren’t enough to help people living with obesity and overweight take action on their weight.

“The idea that obesity is purely a matter of individual choice and willpower is temptingly simple but the facts are more complicated than that. Low incomes, poor transport, a lack of green spaces and safe streets, mental health problems – these are all factors that make it harder for people to lose weight, and obesity policies need to take more account of that.

“Too much of our public conversation about obesity still stigmatises people with obesity. That helps create health inequalities and makes obesity policies less effective. Ministers should help to educate the public in the complex causes of obesity and make clear that weight bias and obesity discrimination have no place in education, health care and the workplace.”

Sarah Le Brocq, director at the charity Obesity UK, commented:  “Whilst the pandemic has highlighted the increased risk of severe consequences of Covid-19 for those people living with obesity, what it hasn’t done is show what the government are trying to do to support those people. Whilst we know the obesity strategy was released in response to the pandemic, it focuses on population level activities and not those at greatest risk with a BMI over 40.

“What we need to do is understand the complexities of obesity, so we stop talking solely about personal responsibility. Provide access to weight management services to everyone that wants them, and stop perpetuating weight stigma. Evidence shows us that weight stigma has a negative outcome on health outcomes, not positive ones.”

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