The health of the nation should be a priority for all governments. Yet in the UK obesity has doubled since the early 1990s, and now three in five people are overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk of many preventable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers, alongside impacts on mental health and wellbeing. The annual cost of adult obesity to UK society is estimated at around £98 billion, including at least £19.2 billion of costs to the NHS. 

Yet to halve obesity requires only small changes to diets. A person living with excess weight needs to reduce their calorie intake by only 8.5% or 216 calories per day. This is a relatively modest shift, yet we know that existing policies are not going to meet the scale of this challenge. 

Polling shows that the British public is concerned about obesity and supportive of stronger government action. In a recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Obesity Health Alliance, 68% of respondents felt that the government should be doing more to make sure healthy food is readily available. The public also recognises a role for industry, with 77% feeling that the food and drink sector has a responsibility to ensure people stay healthy.

Historically, efforts to tackle obesity have been piecemeal, with small or low-impact policies. And the misconception that obesity is an issue of individual willpower has led policymakers to back the wrong approaches to tackling it. But evidence shows that weight loss is only likely to happen in a sustained way if our food environments change. The Government should focus on implementing policies that encourage the food and drink sector to improve its practices, making the places where we shop and the foods we buy healthier for the consumer. 

In this world, consumers would enter a supermarket, whether in-store or online, and be met with a shopping experience designed to result in healthier choices. The changes do not need to be large. Tweaks to existing stocking, advertising, marketing, reformulation and store design practices would be enough to achieve a sustained reduction in calorie consumption.

Our tool for achieving this is mandatory health targets for retailers. 

Specifically, we propose that the government should set targets for large grocery retailers to increase the sales-weighted average [2] nutrient profiling model score of their food product portfolio. This is what we believe is the current best measure for healthiness. 

These targets should be set at an achievable level that is close to the level of the current best performers. It should be announced in advance of implementation with a clear timetable (see implementation plan). This will allow industry time to shift its practices to avoid penalties. Unlike taxes, which have an inherent cost attached, targets should not increase food prices as they require subtle shifts in existing retailer practices with no upfront cost passed to the consumer. Rather than micromanaging businesses, this approach would enable the Government to work in partnership with industry, by setting the direction while allowing retailers to decide on the best approach for their business. 

Our modelling estimates that setting health targets for the 11 largest grocery retailers at levels similar to that already achieved by today’s ‘best’ players could reduce calorie purchases among the population with excess weight by around 80 kcal per person per day and cut obesity prevalence by approximately 23%.

[2]  The health metrics in our analysis were sales weighted by volume (measured in kilos). Sales weighting ensures that products that have a higher volume of sales contribute more to average scores than those that are less frequently purchased (see technical appendix for more detail).

Authors

Lydia Leon

Lydia Leon

Lydia Leon

Senior Analyst, healthy life mission

Lydia works as a senior analyst in the healthy life mission team.

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Husain Taibjee

Husain Taibjee

Husain Taibjee

Analyst, healthy life mission

Husain joined Nesta in 2022 as an analyst and will help to deliver Nesta’s healthy life mission.

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Lauren Bowes Byatt

Lauren Bowes Byatt

Lauren Bowes Byatt

Deputy Director, healthy life mission

Lauren is the Deputy Director of the healthy life mission.

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Hugo Harper

Hugo Harper

Hugo Harper

Mission Director, healthy life mission

Hugo leads Nesta's healthy life mission.

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Elena Mariani

Elena Mariani

Elena Mariani

Principal Data Scientist, healthy life mission

Elena is a principal data scientist for the healthy life mission.

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Isabel Stewart

Isabel Stewart

Isabel Stewart

Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

Izzy is a Data Scientist working in the Data Analytics practice.

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Jessica Jenkins

Jessica Jenkins

Jessica Jenkins

Senior Policy Advisor (Health), Rapid Insights Team

Jess is a senior policy advisor in our Rapid Insights Team (RIT).

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Caitlin Turner

Caitlin Turner

Caitlin Turner

Senior Analyst, healthy life mission

Caitlin joins Nesta as a senior analyst in the healthy life mission.

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