A new study published in Obesity Reviews suggests that the food environment in high income countries, including the UK, hampers people's efforts to lose weight and sustain it, by making it difficult for them to purchase and consume healthier food options. Furthermore, the Government has not taken adequate measures to remodel the food environment. The "food environment" represents settings where people can routinely purchase and consume food outside of the home, along with constant exposure to food advertisements and promotions.
Obesity is a major health concern in the UK, with 2 in 3 adults and 1 in 3 children by the time they leave primary school being overweight or obese. Obesity-related illnesses account for an annual expenditure of £6 billion by the NHS.
Researchers at the City University of London conducted a systematic review of 26 studies published between 2011 and 2020 across 12 high-income countries, including the UK. The studies included accounts of 679 individuals on their weight management experiences in the context of the food environment.
The study identified four major themes describing the influence of the food environment on people's weight loss efforts.
- Unhealthy options, such as high in fat, salt, and/or sugar (HFSS) foods and beverages have a strong presence and appeal within the food environment, which necessitates people practising weight management to consciously plan around or avoid them.
- People's weight management efforts are consistently hampered by the easy availability and accessibility of unhealthy food options in food environment.
- The real and perceived cost of healthier choices is often a barrier to losing weight, particularly for lower income groups.
- Social situations and food environment create an unfavourable combination for people practising weight management.
The review also suggests certain solutions to tackle the inherent problems with the food environment.
- Introducing more promotions and offers on healthy foods, including fruit, vegetables and nuts, and fewer promotions and offers on unhealthy foods
- Encouraging businesses and the public sector organisations to provide healthier food choices at the workplace
- Improving the labelling on foods with regard to portion sizes and nutritional data
- Introducing restrictions on marketing of HFSS foods and beverages
- Providing incentives to fast food outlets for delivering healthy food options, especially around popular business districts
- Offering financial support for lower socioeconomic groups to make healthy food accessible to them
New Policy Needed
Commenting on the findings, Co-author, Kimberley Neve, City, University of London said, "This review highlights not only how difficult it is to lose weight in Britain, and keep it off, but also that it’s just not about willpower or self-control: even people trying really hard are thwarted in their efforts by unhealthy food options that are everywhere – they’re easy to find, cheap to buy, quick and appealing.
"The narrative needs to shift so that instead of going on the usual January diet, people ask for a food environment that supports them to be healthy. For that, you need policy to level the playing field for industry to start making changes.”
The research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme. The authors report no conflicts of interest.