“We Are The Most Overweight Nation in the Whole of Europe”

  • Andrew Selous, MP for South West Bedfordshire spoke during the 'Obesity: Covid-19' debate at 10:00 am, 10th November 2020

“I congratulate Jim Shannon on bringing this important debate before the House.

“When the Prime Minister announced the improvements to the child obesity strategy a few weeks ago, he made the point that the UK is unfortunately an outlier, in that we are the most overweight nation in the whole of Europe, after Malta. Sometimes I think we do not quite realise how serious our national situation is or the implications it has for people’s lives. To me, this has always been a social justice issue, because it significantly adversely affects the poorest people up and down our country.

“I was struck by some information in the House of Lords Select Committee on Food, Poverty, Health and the Environment report, “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food”, which is a very good read, for any Members who want to take the issue further. It points out the reason we are the most overweight nation in Europe, after Malta. It is not difficult to see. On page 19 the report states:

“In the UK, more than half (50.7%) all total dietary energy from purchases came from highly processed foods”.

“That compares with Italy, where the figure is only 13.4%, and Portugal, where it is only 10.2%. In other words, our diet is five times worse than that of the Portuguese. All the figures are going in the wrong direction. Despite all the strategies, it continues to get worse. The debate today needs to be a national wake-up call on this issue. Well done to all the Members who are here. I know the Minister gets it, and I know the Secretary of State gets it, but this is a combined national effort. It is not just up to the Government. It is up to food retailers, local authorities and schools—and, yes, it is up to us as families, parents and individuals to do the right thing. Everyone needs to pitch in and do the right thing.

“Further into the report, on page 20, I found it completely shocking that 47% of primary schoolchildren’s dietary energy comes from products that are high in fat, sugar and salt. That is nearly half, and it just is not good enough. It does not have to be like that. There is healthy, nutritious food that will help our children to grow and develop as we all want them to. The figures show that a fifth—one in five—of children born today are on a trajectory to have type 2 diabetes by the time they are 65, with all the limiting implications that has for their lives and what they will be able to do, as the hon. Member for Strangford said.

“At the really gruesome end of the statistics is the average number of diabetes-related amputations over the last three years, or from 2015-16 to 2017-18. The NHS undertook 9,155 amputations because of type 2 diabetes, with taxpayers’ money. Of those, 27%—more than a quarter—were major amputations, or above the ankle. People are losing their feet because of a lifetime of bad diet. It is a bit grim to spell it out this early on a Tuesday morning, but we cannot tiptoe around the issue. It really is that serious, and we need to do something about it. Yet a number of things are still going in the wrong direction.

“I am a massive fan of the Food Foundation, which is run by our wonderful former colleague Laura Sandys CBE. Its “Broken Plate 2020” food report shows that 14% of local authorities in the last 18 months saw a more than 5% increase in the number of fast food takeaways. What were the directors of public health doing in those 14% of local authorities, where things were clearly going in the wrong direction? Indeed, fast food takeaways in the local authority areas with the highest number make up some 40% of all food outlets in those areas. We really can do better than that.

“We need to hold the food industry to account, as the Obesity Health Alliance has said, to meet its targets to reduce sugar and overall calories from everyday food. Yes, there has been some progress in children’s breakfast cereals—so thank you for that; well done—but not nearly enough progress on a huge range of food.

“I often quote the Dutch supermarket Marqt, which is a private business looking to make a profit, but its whole raison d’être is to sell healthy, nutritious food; it is not part of its philosophy to sell food that will be bad for its customers. If Marqt can do it, as a commercial business in the Netherlands, come on Sainsbury’s; come on Tesco; come on Asda; come on Morrisons: step up and show that you can do that too. Colour coding on front-of-pack labelling will be mandatory from next year. We can do more of that, which would make it easier for people to pick up the right, healthy things.

“I find it surprising that the quality and outcomes framework for our GPs does not include a specific incentive for them to do anything about children being overweight or obese. That has to change. We pay our GPs to do lots of very good things. If this is a national priority—and I think everyone here thinks it should be—then for goodness’ sake let us align the financial incentives for GPs with what we are all trying to achieve and deal with this issue early on, in the right way.

“Overall, if we want a strapline for what we are trying to do, we want healthy food to be the easiest option for people, and it also needs to be affordable. Amazingly, in Europe, healthier food is often cheaper than the less healthy food—this is according to the 2019 Food Foundation report. It does not have to be the case that unhealthy food is cheapest; in other parts of Europe, it is not the case. We could align the financial incentives to make it easy on people’s pockets, when money is tight, to put healthier things in their shopping baskets. We also need to stop the stigma in this area. Some of our press do not report this issue well, and that is not helpful. Further, we need to ensure enough bariatric surgery to help people who have become severely overweight or obese.

“I have a few questions for the Minister. Can she give us an update on menu labelling? The Government say that they will use the powers in the Food Safety Act 1990 to lay the legislation before Parliament in 2020. There is not much of 2020 left, so can the Minister tell us when that will happen?

“The consultation on the labelling of alcoholic drinks has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The consultation on promotions of products that are high in fat, sugar or salt has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The long awaited 9 pm watershed has not been published yet. When can we expect that? The “What Next?” proposals include eight additional policy proposals with limited information about who is responsible, so it would be good to have some more detail on that. I would like to see schools gripping this issue. They do a good job now in providing healthy and nutritious food, but they should have more of an emphasis on teaching children about the importance of healthy nutrition throughout their lives and about how to cook well, which is also extremely important.

“All our healthcare professionals have a role. Every contact is supposed to matter, and this issue is supposed to be mentioned in every contact between a healthcare clinician and a patient. Dr Susan Jebb from Oxford has done lots of good work on how to do that well. We can copy the great work that has been done in Amsterdam to bring down child obesity in particular.

“There are even little things that we can do. Dr Jebb said that when we fill up at the petrol station, we should sometimes pay at the pump because there is an array of temptation when we pay in the shop. It seems a trivial thing. Lots of us pay at the pump because of covid, so perhaps that will help a bit. There are lots of things that we can do. This strategy is very urgent, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to take it forward.”