How I’d Cut Obesity in Britain

In the 11 years I’ve been a personal trainer in London, I’ve had several dozen obese clients, and helped them all lose weight. But not every obese person in Britain can afford a personal trainer. If I were Prime Minister, these are the 10 policies I’d implement to cut obesity in Britain.

I’d probably make enemies of the junk food industry, the alcohol industry, the crash diet industry, and all those people who don’t want any state intervention in their lives whatsoever, but I’d certainly save a lot of lives, and improve the quality of life of many more.

Around a quarter of adults in Britain are obese, and this proportion is rising all the time. This government’s obesity initiatives amount to throwing a tea-cup of water onto a forest fire. Here’s what I’d do:

1. Nutrition in Schools

The younger you can instill healthy habits in kids, the more likely these habits will continue into adulthood. Then they’ll pass on these good habits to their kids, and the cycle of obesity will be broken. All the research shows that fat children are far more likely to become fat adults. Prevention is better than cure, so I say start teaching kids healthy eating from the age of 5.

I’d have nutrition & exercise as a core subject in the national curriculum. And I’d ban junk-food from schools, both in the snack bar and in the dinner hall. The sooner kids get used to eating healthily the better. They might even pester their parents for proper food at home.

Kids would learn about the main food groups (protein, fat, carbohydrates, water) and what roles they play in our bodies. They’d learn about vitamins and minerals, the danger of crash diets, the dozens of diseases and medical conditions that bad diets cause. They’d learn to take responsibility for their own bodies, realise how amazing the human body is, and how easily it can be damaged by the wrong food choices.

Jamie Oliver did a great series a few years back, exposing the scandal of dire school meals. We need to go a step further and properly fund decent food for all kids at lunchtime. He even went to the States to improve school meals there, but it quickly became apparent  that Americans cherish the right to be obese almost as much as the right to bear arms, so he had less success there.

2. Exercise and sport for kids in school and out

Current provision for sports & activities for kids in this country is diabolical. Even the little we have in schools is being further eroded by government policies of selling off school playing fields to property developers.

I would invest properly in school sports, structured exercise in schools, and child-friendly facilities for kids outside school too. Investment in things like this is currently seen as a drain on our economy, adding to our deficit, and reckless spending. I see investment in sport and exercise for kids as a long term investment in the health of our nation.

There is no reason why Britain can’t become a sporting superpower, but it takes investment and a government with ambition.

3. Radically change government healthy eating advice, and shake-up the agencies which dispense this advice

There are a variety of agencies which provide public healthy eating advice, from the Department of Health, Food Standards Agency, British Dietetic Association, to the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

There is a massive conflict of interest in the case of the BNF, as its sustaining members include British Sugar plc, Coca-Cola, Cadbury, Kelloggs (makers of sugary cereals), Tate & Lyle Sugar. The BNF’s role is to provide advice and guidance on healthy eating to the British public, yet they’re funded by the manufactured food industry, several members of which sit squarely in the category of junk food.

I would scrap the BNF, and put in its place a government-funded British Nutrition Agency which advises the public on healthy eating, without any influence or funding from the junk food industry whatsoever. Junk food is a major cause of our obesity epidemic, and for the junk food industry to be allowed to have any influence over public health policy is insane.

I would also commission long term & large scale scientific trials of the effects of eating higher proportions of animal fats in the diet, as I suspect that the main cause of obesity is refined and processed carbohydrates rather than fat. No such trials are being conducted in the UK at present.

The current healthy eating advice from these various agencies is a mixture of “eat 5 a day”, “base your meal on starchy carbs and less fat”, and “junk food is ok as part of a healthy balanced diet”.  The Food Standard’s Agency devised the ‘Eatwell Plate” which is on posters and websites advising on healthy eating. It includes a can of cola, a box of cereal and a whole range of refined carbohydrates.

I would scrap this so-called ‘advice’ and replace it with: eat plenty of vegetables (between 3-5 portions a day), eat no more than 2 fruit a day, junk food has no place in a healthy diet, avoid processed food and eat real food, don’t skip meals, don’t go on crash diets, eat a good balance of fats, protein, and carbohydrates, and avoid anything with added sucrose or high fructose corn syrup. And avoid like the plague all trans fats.  The fact that the “5 a day” campaign makes no distinction between fruit and vegetables is utterly insane. The food industry has hijacked our nation’s public healthy eating advice, and I would ban this outright.

4. Pedestrian and cycling networks throughout Britain’s towns & cities

Walking and cycling are great ways to get more active, yet our towns & cities are hostile to both. The car dominates our urban landscape like never before, and it’s getting steadily worse. It’s time for pedestrians and cyclists to reclaim the streets, so we’re all getting more exercise every day, as a natural part of our everyday lives.

Boris Johnson has done fantastic work with the Boris Bike in London, and I would go several leaps further and build more Amsterdam style cycle networks across every town and city, giving cyclists real safety for the first time ever. The idea of pedestrian/cycle only bridges across London is fantastic, but I would implement it far faster and have far more of these links across the Thames.

For pedestrians I would bring about more pedestrian-only streets and city centres, and more pedestrian crossings in some parts of London (and other towns & cities) which lack pedestrian crossings. I’ll never forget the news story of the pensioner in north London who had to take a bus because there were no pedestrian crossings between his flat and the local shops across the road. Our roads are still far too dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists, and this only adds to the deterrents for anyone trying to get more active.

5. Better mental health provision

In many cases there are underlying mental health problems behind obesity. Britain’s mental health provision is dire, and I would fund the mental health side of the NHS, which has long been underfunded. Issues like depression, low self-esteem, childhood traumas, all contribute to our obesity epidemic when people turn to food as a way of dealing with their pain. The more emotionally robust and balanced you are, the higher your self-esteem, the better able you are to make healthy food choices.

6. No more bariatric surgery

Thousands of gastric band, gastric bypass, gastric balloon, and stomach stapling operations are carried out on the NHS. This is totally the wrong approach to the obesity epidemic. It is based on the false notion that these patients have tried everything and this is the last resort. Total nonsense. What is needed is proper funding of NHS prescribed diet, exercise, and mental health treatment. So I’d ban these operations, and fund real solutions for morbidly obese patients.

7. Supertax on junk-food, fizzy drinks, and alcohol

All the investment I’d implement above has to be paid for somehow, and it seems appropriate to raise some of the money in a way that’s consistent with boosting Britain’s health & well-being at the same time. There is overwhelming evidence from around the world that these taxes reduce consumption, so there would multiple savings for the NHS as levels of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, liver failure, all start to come down.

So my super-taxes would be both revenue raising, and cost-cutting. They would also save lives and reduce suffering on a massive scale.

8. Enforce further reductions in salt and sugar in processed foods

We currently have the insane policy of voluntary reductions by the food industry, which is a case of too little, too late. I would get a grip on the food industry and legislate to enforce further reductions in salt and sugar by specific amounts with specific deadlines. Massive fines for corporate non-compliance would both act as an incentive to comply, and raise further money to fund my anti-obesity measures, from companies which fail to comply.

The primary role of government is not to protect the profits of the junk-food and alcohol industries, it’s to act in the interests of the British public as a whole.

9. Ban junk food advertising & sponsorship at sporting events

There was something a bit creepy about McDonalds, Cadbury, and Coca-Cola sponsoring the London 2012 Olympics. The junk-food industry has no place at sporting events, particularly ones which influence our nation’s youth so profoundly. Just as the last Labour government banned tobacco advertising, I’d ban junk-food advertising at sporting events.

There are plenty of companies that can sponsor big sporting events, such as the banks, and sports footwear companies like Puma, Reebok, and Nike. Junk food companies sponsoring sporting events sends out the wrong message to our kids.

10. Planning restrictions on junk-food outlets

You can’t walk 10 paces in any city in Britain without coming across a burger bar, fried chicken outlet, Chinese takeaway, the list is endless. Chicken bones and junk-food boxes litter our streets. I find it really sad.

I’d restrict the number of outlets in any street, using the planning laws. And I’d hike-up the taxes on these businesses, and have the local government public health & food hygiene inspectors crawling all over them. Smaller junk-food outlets and takeaways are more likely than the big chains to have poor food hygiene standards, and last year over 850,000 people suffered food poisoning in the UK.

As with most agencies responsible for public health in the UK, our system of public health inspectors is grossly underfunded, which is a totally self-defeating false economy. I would fund these inspectors properly, using revenue raised from taxing the outlets they inspect.

As a personal trainer in London, I’m passionate about health, fitness and good nutrition. As prime minister, I’d get Britain fit and healthy, and cut obesity dramatically.