The Institute of Economic Affairs, a UK think tank, raised an important issue yesterday (18 August) when it insisted a decline in physical activity is the “root cause” of the obesity epidemic. The IEA research aims to debunk the widespread belief that our widening girths can largely be attributed to calorie consumption. However, while lifestyle factors are central to the obesity issue, Katy Askew suggests that a holistic approach – in which the food industry plays a central role – is needed to combat the problem.

The obesity epidemic and associated non-communicable diseases – from cancer to diabetes – are a global phenomenon placing worldwide health services under immense pressure and robbing millions of their vigor.

In terms of its economic impact, the cost of obesity stretches beyond the expense associated with treatment to hidden costs such as lower productivity which can stifle economic development.

And the problem is growing at the rate our waistlines are expanding.

Over the last 30 years, the proportion of the global population that is obese has doubled. Obesity-related diseases currently kill 2.8m adults each year and it is likely that this figure will continue to rise.

There is no debate that obesity represents a significant threat to the wellbeing of the global population. Indeed, if obesity levels continue to rise at their current rate, in another 20 years as much as 50-60% of the world population could be classed as overweight.

Yet there remains a lack of consensus on how the problem should be tackled. Although the World Health Organisation declared obesity an epidemic in 1997, stakeholders have yet to develop a comprehensive collective response.

For many health campaigners and regulators much of the “blame” for the crisis lies with the food industry and the high fat, salt and sugar processed foods it pedals. Mexico has moved to introduce a so-called “fat tax” and restrictions have been placed on advertising. Closer to home in the UK, Public Health England has pledged to consider more radical levers to cut the population’s sugar intake. 

As Christopher Snowdon of the Institute of Economic Affairs observes, placing blame squarely on the food industry is a somewhat convenient interpretation of the situation.

In research released yesterday (18 August), the pro free-market think tank suggests that the food sector represents an “inviting target for health campaigners”.

“A war on the food industry requires no stigmatisation of individuals and there are a readymade set of policies available which have been tried and tested in the campaigns against tobacco and alcohol,” the IEA research paper, The Fat Lie, concludes.

Snowdon insists: “The root cause of Britain’s rising obesity levels has not been a rise in calorie intake but a rise in inactivity. With obesity now featuring so heavily in the media it is worrying that so few people know that our largely sedentary lifestyles, not our appetites, have been the driving force behind the UK’s expanding waistlines.”

According to the IEA research, calorie consumption has actually fallen in the UK in the past decade – while obesity rates have continued to rise. “Since 2002, the average body weight of English adults has increased by two kilograms. This has coincided with a decline in calorie consumption of over 4% and a decline in sugar consumption of nearly 7.5%,” the IEA asserts.

Snowden is right to highlight the significant impact that sedentary lifestyles have on obesity. However, in doing so one should be wary of exonerating to food industry of all responsibility.

Obesity is a complex condition that affects virtually all age and socioeconomic groups and threatens to overwhelm both developed and developing countries. Looking at calorie consumption patterns in the UK in isolation fails to take a big picture view of the issue.

In addition, the IEA says that data on calorie consumption prior to 2000 is not available. This in itself is a major shortcoming for any study of eating patterns. Certainly, in the US data would suggest that increased calorie consumption can be directly linked to higher obesity rates.

According to the US Department of Agriculture: “Americans… are consuming more food and several hundred more calories per person per day than did their counterparts in the late 1950s… or even the 1970s.”

Higher consumption levels have been a major feature in the FDA’s move to revamp the nutritional facts labelling system to more accurately reflect a realistic calorie intake – with proposals as much as doubling the estimated serving size in some cases.

The food industry does have a part to play in the obesity crisis – and it should also have a role in developing and implementing a solution.

Within the industry, there is an overwhelming preference for voluntary action over regulation. And, in many instances, the food sector has embarked on a process of reformulation to reduce fat, salt and sugar content in processed foods.

Food majors including Nestle, Mondelez International and Unilever have all made pledges to reduce saturated fat levels in their products on sale in the UK and confectioners in the country have signed up to a 250kcal cap on single serve confectionery items. 

This sort of action is vital. The food sector must continue to focus its energies on reformulation and innovation if it is to fend off the growing prospect of increased regulation and, at the same time, contribute meaningfully to the worldwide fight against obesity.

Click here to view the IAE research paper.