The UK’s House of Commons Health Committee has published its long-awaited report on obesity, warning of the threat that obesity poses to the nation’s health.

Obesity has grown by almost 400% in the last 25 years, such that three-quarters of the adult population are now overweight or obese (around 22% are now obese), the report said. England has witnessed the fastest growth in obesity in Europe and childhood obesity has tripled in twenty years.

“Should the gloomier scenarios relating to obesity turn out to be true, the sight of amputees will become much more familiar in the streets of Britain. There will be many more blind people. There will be huge demand for kidney dialysis. The positive trends of recent decades in combating heart disease, partly the consequence of the decline in smoking, will be reversed. Indeed, this will be the first generation where children die before their parents as a consequence of childhood obesity,” the report warned.

The report calculates the cost of overweight and obesity to the nation at up to £7.4bn (US$13.5bn) per year, a figure which will rapidly rise.

“The devastating consequences of the epidemic of obesity are likely to have a profound impact over the next century. Obesity will soon supersede tobacco as the greatest cause of premature death in this country. It is staggering to realise that on present trends half of all children in England in 2020 could be obese. Already a third of children in America (which is ahead of us only by a few years in obesity trends) are likely to become diabetic,” said the committee’s chairman David Hinchliffe.

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Food industry ‘needs to take responsibility’

“It is simply unacceptable that sports and education ministers should have endorsed initiatives to supply schools with sporting equipment or books but which required children to buy Cadbury’s chocolate or Walker’s crisps,” he continued.

“Food companies and supermarkets will need to take real responsibility for their products and marketing, not simply pay lip service to it while undermining genuine efforts to reform the nation’s diet. Labelling needs to be radically simplified. And schools will have to encourage activity and actively monitor the health of their children,” Hinchliffe added.

On the subject of exercise the report noted that the average person now walks 189 miles per year compared to 255 miles 20 years ago. Fewer than 1% of school journeys are now made by bicycle and half the nation’s children fail to achieve the government’s modest target of two hours activity per week. At the same time, energy-dense foods, which are highly calorific without being correspondingly filling, are becoming increasingly available.

The report cautions against the “simplistic approach to the problem of obesity originally adopted by the Public Health Minister”, and instead opts for the more complex and multifaceted solutions supported by leading academics and clinicians. It recommends the establishment of a cabinet-level public health committee to oversee the development of targets across all relevant government departments.

The report calls for a sustained health education campaign to target obesity by raising individual awareness of its consequences, but also emphasises the need for solutions to address environmental as well as individual factors, making healthy choices easier to make within the increasingly “obesogenic” environment.

“It is not adequate to focus on the individual, especially the child, and expect them to exercise self-control against a stream of socially endorsed stimuli designed to encourage the consumption of excess food calories,” the report said.

Proposed ban on advertising to kids

The report recommends an industry-led, voluntary withdrawal of television advertising of unhealthy food to children, together with a wide-ranging review of all forms of food promotion. This should be backed up by action to reduce the promotion and availability of unhealthy foods in schools, through engagement with parents and governors. In addition to this, industry should take active steps to reformulate foods to reduce their energy density, and to introduce healthy pricing strategies to make healthy choices affordable for all.

It goes on to recommend the introduction of legislation to effect a ‘traffic light’ system for labelling foods, either ‘red – high’, ‘amber – medium’ or ‘green – low’ according to criteria devised by the Food Standards Agency, which should be based on energy density. The report argues that not only will such a system make it far easier for consumers to make easy choices, but it will also act as an incentive for the food industry to re-examine the content of their foods.