The United Kingdom is on a diet, or rather it was put on a diet by its premier Boris Johnson. On Monday, the government launched a new campaign that aims to reduce obesity levels in the UK, cracking down on junk food advertising and introducing calorie counts on menus. With this maneuver, the British prime minister wants to ease the pressure on the country’s National Health Service amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For Boris Johnson, the intersection of obesity and coronavirus, is personal. “I was too fat”, he says in a video posted on Twitter, remembering his hospitalisation due to COVID-19, the hours when he feared death, and then the convalescence, which brought with it a new revelation - unfortunately not about the use of face masks - but about the average weight of the British population. So now the ‘buy one, get one free’ promotions on high calorie products will end, TV and online advertisements for food considered unhealthy (high in fat, sugar or salt) will be banned from 9pm onwards, calorie labels will be added on food and alcohol in restaurants, cafes and takeaways, and doctors will be encouraged to prescribe the use of bicycle to go to work and/or a morning run. A new app (soon to be available), managed by the NHS, will also offer a twelve-week diet to lose at least two and a half kilos.
Professor Parveen Kumar, chair of the British Medical Association, which represents doctors, said in a statement on Monday that the measures need to be “actioned as quickly as possible” and the strategy “could go a long way in kick-starting a health revolution for the nation.”
Losing weight is hard but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier.— Boris Johnson #StayAlert (@BorisJohnson) July 27, 2020
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.
Our Better Health Strategy https://t.co/WdazXhuhRN pic.twitter.com/KZhW8p17FJ
Studies have found evidence linking obesity to a greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Even though people with obesity frequently have other medical problems, the research identifies the condition itself as the most significant risk factor, after older age, for being hospitalized with COVID-19. Moreover, having a BMI of 40 or above increases the risk of death from coronavirus compared to those people with lower BMI.
It is terrifying to think that obesity levels in the UK have more than tripled in the last 30 years. On current estimates, 63% of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity as well as one in three school-age children (34%). Obesity is a pandemic itself, the biggest health crisis the country faces. At this rate, more than half of the population could be obese by 2050. The United Kingdom has been called "the fat man of Europe” - aka the fattest country in Europe - because here obesity grows faster than in all other developed states.
Why? This is the question all British experts would like to answer. For now it has been established that there has been no genetic mutation in British DNA, but obesity rates are linked to society, that has changed a lot in terms of "work, transport, production, and sale of food", according to the government report commissioned in 2017. There is also a correlation between poorer areas and obesity: in areas with lower-middle income, obesity is almost double compared to high income ones. That is why, as early as 2016, the sugar tax was introduced in an effort by the British government to find suitable policies to reduce childhood obesity.
This latest strategy in Boris Johnson’s fight against coronavirus, however, did not receive a warm welcome. First and foremost from the food and retail industry, to which the state turned its back. This new campaign is in fact in contrast with the Eat Out and Help Out Scheme, which incentives customers to eat in a restaurant or other eating establishments by giving them a discount which they can then claim back from the government. The paradox is quite clear: the government wants the British to eat out in order to increase consumption and bring life back to a very pandemic-tested economy, but at the same time would like them to eat less and better, to contain the rate of obesity and especially the healthcare costs associated with it.
Ultimately, we can’t help but wonder if this is the right time (and especially the right strategy) to fight a virus that has devastated the country and killed more than 45.000 people after a series of mishandled situations by the government itself.
Written by Miriam Tagini