Dr. Jonathan Bone argues why this moment is a huge opportunity to reduce obesity in Wales
Obesity is one of Wales’ biggest health challenges of our time – and things are only getting worse. Rates of obesity in Wales have been increasing for decades and the nation now has the highest obesity rates in the UK.
Excess weight affects nearly 1.6 million adults in Wales, with 25% of Welsh adults being obese and 10,000 more becoming obese each year.
Worryingly, the rates of obesity by the age of five are higher in Wales than in any other part of the UK (12.6%).
So we need to take action in Wales now to stop this growing trend. At Nesta we’re hugely encouraged by the Welsh Government’s healthy food environment consultation and have responded in partnership with Obesity Alliance Cymru to urge progress on steps to reduce the saturation of unhealthy foods and make changes that can have a real impact.
Policymakers have previously relied on attempts to educate and persuade people to make lifestyle changes to reduce their weight. Not only does this perpetuate an unhelpful and stigmatising belief that obesity is the result of an individual's lack of willpower, it just hasn’t worked – obesity rates have continued to rise.
The best evidence suggests that continuing to promote healthy eating information and relying on individuals to take action is too simplistic. Instead, we need to focus on the many factors outside of our control that have been shown to drive increased consumption of unhealthy foods.
In other words, it needs to be easier for people to make healthier food choices — no matter how much time, money or headspace they have — and we can do this by improving their ‘food environment’.
Our diets are heavily influenced by the price, availability and convenience of food, prompts in our environment like advertising, product placement and the sheer number of places selling unhealthy foods.
Much of the work that needs to be done to create healthier food environments in Wales is in the Welsh Government's gift. The current healthy food environment consultation is a massive opportunity to make it easier for people to make healthy choices, whether at the till, online, or when grabbing food on the go.
The restriction of price and placement promotions on unhealthy foods is a hugely significant area proposed by the consultation. Almost 30% of food and drink purchased by Welsh consumers in 2019 was bought on promotion, according to research by Cancer Research UK, which also found that consumers who buy more on promotion buy more unhealthy food and drink items. Restrictions on the placement of sweets and confectionery by the till led to a 17% reduction in their purchase, research by the University of Cambridge found.
With similar restrictions facing delays from Westminster, this is an opportunity for Wales to lead the way. And there is already a precedent in this country to make big changes that aim to encourage healthier choices. In 2020, for example, independently of Westminster, the Welsh Government introduced a minimum price that could be charged on a unit of alcohol as a measure to tackle alcohol-related harm.
We know that where policy leads, industry will follow. With sugar consumption higher in Wales than in other parts of the UK, there is a particular opportunity in Wales to target high-sugar foods for reformulation.
The soft drinks levy was successful at nudging manufacturers to reformulate their products with less sugar. The upcoming restrictions on supermarket promotions are a welcome step and we may see some manufacturers making popular snacks healthier in response to the legislation.
All of this is within Wales’ control.
We undertook polling earlier this year with Welsh adults as we wanted to understand attitudes and assumptions around the healthiness of popular foods. We found consumers significantly underestimate the number of calories in popular snack foods.
With snacks making up a significant portion of our diets, this is a real opportunity to improve the health of people in Wales. The ‘healthier shopping baskets’ part of the consultation focuses on shifting the balance of heavy promotions and marketing techniques towards healthier choices – making these choices more affordable.
The consultation proposes interventions extending the ban on positioning promotions of high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food to online shopping, including a pop-up page that references HFSS products before the online checkout stage. Based on our trials with an experimental takeaway platform this could be one step which works to reduce consumption of these products.
The increased cost of living and the skyrocketing price of food makes the need to take action on our food environments more urgent. As considerably more people in Wales live in areas of deprivation than in England or Scotland, this current crisis will be felt hard in communities across Wales. Healthy food can be more expensive, more difficult and costly to access and take longer to prepare than less healthy products, it is much harder than it should be for families to eat healthily. In fact, 32% of Welsh households would need to spend more than a quarter of their disposable income to eat a healthy diet.
We want to find ways to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food for everyone and this consultation is pivotal in getting the nation talking – and making big changes to benefit us all.