Successive governments’ approaches to obesity policies have destined them to fail, say researchers

  Silhouettes of three women running  Credit: Fitsum Admasu

Government obesity policies in England over the past three decades have largely failed because of problems with implementation, lack of learning from past successes or failures, and a reliance on trying to persuade individuals to change their behaviour rather than tackling unhealthy environments.

This is the conclusion of new research by a team at the University of Cambridge funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research.

The researchers say their findings may help to explain why, after nearly thirty years of government obesity policies, obesity prevalence in England has not fallen and substantial inequalities persist. According to a report by NHS Digital in May 2020, 67% of men and 60% of women live with overweight or obesity, including 26% of men and 29% of women who suffer clinical obesity. More than a quarter of children aged two to 15 years live with obesity or overweight and the gap between the least and most deprived children is growing.

Successive governments have tried to tackle the obesity problem: in research published today in The Milbank Quarterly, Dolly Theis and Martin White in the Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR) at the University of Cambridge identified 14 government-led obesity strategies in England from 1992-2020. They analysed these strategies – which contained 689 wide-ranging policies – to determine whether they have been fit for purpose in terms of their strategic focus, content, basis in theory and evidence, and implementation viability.

Seven of the strategies were broad public health strategies containing obesity as well as non-obesity policies such as on tobacco smoking and food safety. The other seven contained only obesity-related policies, such as on diet and/or physical activity. Twelve of the fourteen strategies contained obesity reduction targets. However, only five of these were specific, numerical targets rather than statements such as ‘aim to reduce obesity’.

Theis said: “In almost 30 years, successive UK governments have proposed hundreds of wide-ranging policies to tackle obesity in England, but these are yet to have an impact on levels of obesity or reduce inequality. Many of these policies have largely been flawed from the outset and proposed in ways that make them difficult to implement. What’s more, there’s been a fairly consistent failure to learn from past mistakes. Governments appear more likely to publish another strategy containing the same, recycled policies than to implement policies already proposed.

“If we were to produce a report card, overall we might only give them 4 out of 10: could do much better.”

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Image: Silhouettes of three women running

Credit: Fitsum Admasu

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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