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British Psychological Society says government should recognise deprivation as a cause of obesity

25 June 2018

The government has set itself the target of halving the number of obese children by 2030.

Jeremy Hunt, the health and social care secretary, has announced new proposals, including plans to counter ‘pester power’ by preventing stores from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts or including it in buy-one-get-one-free offers.

The Department of Health and Social Care will consult on introducing calorie labelling on menus so parents can make an informed choice about what their children are eating. It will also consult on banning the sale of energy drinks to children.

Nigel Atter, a policy adviser for the British Psychological Society, said:

“The causes of obesity are complex in nature. So far proposed policy interventions have focused on price promotions and advertising, which are just part of the equation. While it is true unhealthy foods are too heavily promoted and that our food is too full of fat and salt, it is also true that we are reluctant to make the right choices.

Deprivation has a huge effect on our health. Less likely to achieve at school and more likely to live in an environment where fast food is easily accessible, children from less affluent backgrounds face a toxic mix which make the healthy choices the hard choices. From school education to doing the family shop, we should be demonstrating which foods are necessary and which are a luxury to our younger generation.

The effect of obesity on our children’s health goes beyond physical. Children living with obesity are more likely to suffer from lower educational attainment, emotional distress and a range of behaviours associated with poor health outcomes due to weight-based stigma and mocking.

Psychological interventions can help bridge the gap in our approach, aiding understanding of how individuals can overcome the stress, anxiety and stigma that perpetuate the cycle of poor diet and lack of exercise.

We need to challenge the perception that individuals are solely to blame for their weight. Removing this barrier, whether via adapting the environment to promote healthy options or via one-to-one health interventions, is the first step to removing the shame which prevents individuals from engaging in healthier lifestyles.“

On the basis of the psychological evidence, the Society recommends.

  • The government should introduce legislation to increase taxation on high fat and high sugar foods, enforce manufacturers to lower the amounts of fat, sugar and salt in products, and more clearly label high-fat, sugary and salty foods.
  • The curriculum of parenting programmes should include healthy eating with a focus not only on what to eat but where, when and how to eat.
  • The PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) curriculum should include the role of food, nutrition, malnutrition, obesity and the promotion of healthy eating, exercise and a positive relationship with food.
  • Public Health England should be funded to further promote healthy eating specifically for children, and also across the whole population.

For more on the psychological approach to obesity, click here to download our behaviour change briefing on childhood nutrition.

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