In England, more than a third of children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, which means they are more likely to be bullied, face stigma and suffer low self-esteem.
They are also more likely to become overweight or obese adults, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. As it stands in England, almost two-thirds of adults are also overweight or obese.
The cost of obesity to society
There’s no getting around the fact that obesity is complex and there are multiple factors – environmental, societal and personal – which have led to the obesity crisis our children and families are facing. Obesity impacts individuals and their lives in many different ways and also places a considerable cost on society.
For example, treating obesity costs the NHS £6.1 billion a year. Musculoskeletal conditions can be caused by obesity and are the biggest causes of sick leave in England. Sick leave costs the economy £100 billion a year.
When it comes to tackling the obesity crisis, change won’t happen overnight - it will take the efforts of many and a range of initiatives until we really see improvements. Just as there are many causes of obesity, we need multiple approaches to tackling it.
The role of PHE and why we are now focusing on calories
Public Health England plays a major role in addressing the obesity challenge and this includes delivering significant parts of the government’s childhood obesity plan.
We know through our National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) that our nation’s diet is not what it should be. Children are consuming around three times more sugar than needed and only a quarter of adults achieve their 5 A Day. Around a quarter of adults’ calories come from food eaten outside the home.
That’s why we’re working with the food and drink industry to improve the products we all buy. Our work with industry initially focused on reducing sugar - now that’s underway, we’re extending our work to reduce the calories people consume overall.
At its core, consuming more calories than necessary is what drives weight gain. Since last summer, we’ve been looking at the evidence behind children’s calorie consumption and have now published this with further details on our calorie reduction programme.
What does the evidence on calories show?
The evidence shows overweight and obese boys consume anywhere between 140–500 calories too many each day, depending on their age. For overweight and obese girls it’s 160–290, while adults currently consume between 200–300 excess calories each day.
We’re now challenging the food industry to reduce the calories in food, including their most popular products, by 20% by 2024. This includes categories of foods making significant contributions to children’s calorie intakes, where there is scope for substantial reformulation and/or portion size reduction - such as pizzas, ready meals, ready-made sandwiches, meat products and savoury snacks.
If the target is met within 5 years, this will prevent more than 35,000 premature deaths over 25 years and there will be savings of almost £9 billion in NHS healthcare and social care costs.
We will now work towards setting guidelines for the product categories included in the programme. This will include extensive engagement with all sectors of industry and health groups. We will publish the guidance in mid-2019.
So what public initiatives do we have to support this work?
For adults, we’ve launched our latest One You campaign alongside the calorie reduction programme. With an overarching aim of helping people be more calorie-aware, the new campaign encourages people to follow a simple rule of thumb: 400-600-600 – the number of calories to aim for at breakfast, lunch and dinner. These are not new guidelines. They are intended to help people choose healthier meals when they are out and about.
Healthy snacks between these main meals are expected to take adults to the recommended daily calorie intake – 2000 calories a day for women and 2500 for men. These guidelines on total daily calorie intake are not changing and this is primarily aimed at people who may not know how many calories are in the meals they eat outside the home.
Some household names are already playing a role in helping consumers be more calorie-aware.
As part of the One You campaign, Greggs, McDonalds, Starbucks and Subway are some of the food on the go companies who are signposting consumers to meals that fall under the 400-600-600 rule of thumb.
While our work with industry and healthy lifestyle campaigns make an important contribution, they are only part of the wider solution needed to shrink the nation’s expanding waistline. It is a long journey to becoming, as a society, more calorie-literate. This is the start of a journey and there’s plenty more to come that will help us all play a part.
The growth of the snacks and drinks market in recent years is a factor in children and families people consuming excess calories. Snacks do more than feed hunger; they are part of our habits and a response to the ubiquitous marketing and promotions which we see everywhere.
Snacking is a regular occurrence for many people and in the age of infinite choice, keeping track of how much we’re eating and making informed choices is often challenging.
This is especially the case for children and families. Half of the sugar children consume comes from sugary snacks and drinks and this can mean too many calories and tooth decay. That was the driving force behind our Change4Life campaign launched in January, which helps parents select healthier snacks for children through a simple rule of thumb - “Look for 100 calorie snacks, 2 a day max”. You can learn more about it here.