Redesigning our food environments will help to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food for everyone
Where we live, work, shop and learn can affect the food we eat and how healthy we are. We call this the food environment: it could be your neighbourhood, workplace or even online, and it includes everything you experience in those places relating to food. It is the availability, accessibility, affordability and advertising of food.
Many of us live in environments where the food that is most readily available is unhealthy. This is because of things such as the portion sizes of meals in restaurants or takeaways and the price and convenience of unhealthy foods in shops. Other factors include the ways in which food is promoted, advertised and displayed as well as the fact that some neighbourhoods are flooded with fast-food shops and convenience stores, while places to buy fruit and vegetables can be a bus ride away.
Over the last 30 years, successive governments have published 14 targets and 689 policy recommendations aimed at turning the tide on obesity. Yet in the same period rates of overweight and obesity have doubled. This is because most Government recommendations focused on measures that place high demands on individuals to make change. For example by encouraging more exercise or sharing information about how to eat a healthier diet.
These policies which have focused on individual willpower, information sharing and exercise have evidently failed. The problem is not people’s desire to lose weight – 38% of UK adults say they are trying – but rather how difficult it is to be healthy.
Many of our food choices are not conscious, deliberative decisions but instinctive responses to our environment. The best evidence suggests there are many factors outside of our control which drive us to over consume. How food is marketed, what food is available and how convenient it is, all influence our choices.
Nesta believes that lots of small, imperceptible changes to our food environments can add up to big reductions in rates of obesity across the population. So we get the health benefits without making it harder for people, or removing the joy from food. To do this we need to look at the availability and convenience of healthy food, at advertising prompts and the information that surrounds us. It all shapes our opportunity to be healthy.
We need supermarkets, restaurants and manufacturers to take steps to increase the flow of healthier options and to stop pushing unhealthy choices through promotions. This could mean working with food retailers to revise store layouts to promote healthier options. Or it could mean working with the government to introduce policies like the soft drinks industry levy — which has proven to be effective at encouraging the food industry to reformulate it’s products and reduce sugar content in soft drinks.
The soft drinks levy was successful at incentivising manufacturers to reformulate their products to contain less sugar. By the time the soft drinks industry levy was introduced in 2018, most drinks sold by Coca-Cola had been reformulated below 5g of sugar per 100ml. Sales and profits held up but sugar consumption in soft drinks fell by 30%.
We want to find more ways like this to increase the availability, accessibility and affordability of healthy food for everyone.
In other words, we want it to be easier for people to make healthier food choices — no matter how much time, money or headspace they have.