UK food environment damages dieters

Unhealthy food is heavily promoted, often cheaper, and more readily available than healthier options in Britain, which constantly undermines people’s effort to lose weight, according to a review by researchers at City University in London.

Two out of three UK adults are overweight or obese, and one in three children are similarly affected by the time they leave primary school. Obesity-related illnesses account for an annual expenditure of £6 billion by the NHS.

The review of 26 studies published between 2011 and 2020 in 12 high-income countries including the UK, also carried accounts  from 679 people describing their weight management experiences in the context of their food environment.

Their experiences showed four major themes:

  • Sugar, fat and salt-rich foods have a ‘strong presence and appeal in the food environment’. People trying to lose weight have to consciously plan to avoid seeing them;
  • Weight management efforts are constantly undermined by ready availability of unhealthy food;
  • Social situations combine with a food environment, making it hard for people trying to manage their weight;
  • Real and perceived cost of healthier food is a barrier to weight loss, particularly for lower income groups.

It suggested six solutions: 

  • More promotions and offers on healthy foods, including fruit, vegetables and nuts, and fewer promotions and offers on unhealthy food;
  • Encouraging businesses and the public sector organisations to provide healthier food choices in workplaces;
  • Improved food labelling to provide portion sizes and nutritional data;
  • Restrictions on marketing of food and drink high in sugar, fat and salt;
  • Incentives for fast food outlets to deliver healthy food options, especially around popular business districts;
  • Financial support for lower socioeconomic groups to make healthy food accessible to them.

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