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A Director of Public Health’s-eye-view of obesity

21st September 2016

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An obesity pandemic, with London at the top of the obesity league table of global cities

The world is hitting the peak of a truly global epidemic of obesity … and that makes it a pandemic. Most people don’t think of it that way, because unlike swine flu, the obesity pandemic is taking years to spread through the human race, not months. It may be a slow burn, but the death toll is way higher than any infectious pandemic we’ve ever seen. It’s affecting global populations in different ways; in low income countries for example the highest obesity rates are seen amongst the wealthiest, whilst in high income countries like the UK obesity rates are twice as high amongst the poorest compared with the well off.

The world’s scientists agree that however the obesity pandemic is playing out across the globe, the underlying cause is the same … it is a normal response, of normal human beings, to an environment that has become very, very abnormal. We haven’t become lazier, or greedier, since the 1980s. What has changed to some extent is the amount of energy we need to burn to get through the day, but what has changed dramatically is the amount of high energy, high fat, and very high sugar food that surrounds us.

When it comes to similar global cities – Paris, New York, Sydney, Madrid – London tops the obesity league table. London’s childhood obesity rates are worse than the rest of England, with over 22% of 10-11 year olds classified as obese.  Obesity will kill more of our children than smoking, alcohol and drugs, and if we don’t reverse the epidemic, then for the first time in hundreds of years, our children might experience a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

We have to do something to reverse the obesity epidemic in London, and given how long it will take, we have to start taking action now.  But what should we do? The research evidence is building up, and is starting to provide answers.  The bad news is, right now there is no single silver bullet that will cure or immunise against obesity.  The good news is that taking a ‘whole system approach’ to obesity looks like it could reverse the epidemic. What does that mean? It basically means doing lots of different things all at the same time.  Some of those things involve people changing their lifestyles, but most involve changing the environment – in lots of different ways, until a critical mass of changes is reached.

The changes that are likely to have the biggest impacts need to be taken by government. These are things like a sugar tax, banning price promotions (buy one, get one free) on high fat-high sugar food and drink, and reformulating the sugar content in food and drink. Where the government won’t act, London could take some of these actions, especially if the capital gets more devolved powers.

But there are lots of things that local authorities can do to take a whole system approach to tackling obesity in their communities; If they get the support of their residents, their local NHS, schools, restaurants and food retailers, sports and leisure providers, businesses, property developers, faith and community groups … the whole system. But it starts and ends with people power.

What can London do about it? What can Londoners do?

A whole system approach to tackling the obesity epidemic in London has got to be about Londoners making changes to their lifestyle as well as bringing the environment we live in back to normal.  Making even small changes to our lives can shift even large amounts of excess weight over time. Every local council website has lots of information and advice that can help you, and Public Health England has recently launched ONE YOU, a website designed to help you improve your health. You can even download a SUGAR SMART app from the Appstore and Google Play that allows you to point your phone at a barcode to tell you how many cubes of sugar there are in thousands of different products.

But maybe the most important thing you can do, is to make your voice heard alongside millions of other Londoners and campaign to bring the environment that has made London an obesity capital back to normal.

Join the London Great Weight Debate in your local borough.  8.7 million voices supporting radical action on obesity sends a very powerful message to the Mayor of London, and to the government.  Look what people power did to make the government change its position on a sugary drinks tax.

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