Like the PM, I haven’t yet had the chance to read all 284 pages of the National Food Strategy: Part 2 and like him, I imagine, I have only skimmed the highlights and key recommendations. The strategy looks at how the food system really works, the damage it is doing to our bodies and our ecosystem, and the interventions we could make to prevent these harms. It considers the characteristics of complex systems and the mechanisms that cause system failures. And it sets out a strategy for the future, based not just on rigorous science but on the needs and wishes of ordinary citizens.
After a two-year labour of love by Henry Dimbleby and his team, there is plenty of meat – and even more veg – in the report and I for one welcome the renewed focus on food, real food, something that as a country we have not talked about for years.
Over those years our diet has deteriorated, along with our health. In the period between the 1980s and now, the British diet has become the least healthy in the world, just behind America. And it shows.
As a nation we are unhealthy and the weight of the problem is already causing the NHS to struggle. This is only the start. The human costs of obesity are well known. Being overweight or obese significantly increases the risk of devastating but largely preventable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease, stroke and related mental health conditions. But spiralling rates of obesity is far bigger than just a health issue. The evidence is clear that obesity racks up a staggering bill – at least £5.1 billion to the NHS and tens of billions to UK society every year – £1 in every £8 spent on healthcare is currently going to fighting type 2 diabetes, a condition reversible by diet. These are enormous numbers. But we pay for them through our taxes, and businesses lose out when their staff suffer from completely avoidable illness. The economy loses out due to reduced productivity and obesity-related illness making people unable to work. Failure to tackle obesity is kicking an enormous debt – tens of billions of pounds a year – into the long grass and expecting future generations to pay for it.
In the ‘80s our diet was more or less 70 per cent real food and 30 per cent processed food. Today it is the other way round and the UPF (ultra-processed food) we are now so addicted to contains very little in the way of nutrients. TV presenter Dr Chris Van Tulleken recently challenged himself to eat a diet of mostly ultra-processed foods for a month, from around 30 per cent to 80 per cent, which is a normal diet for one in five people in the UK. What he experienced was staggering. A seven-kilo weight gain as well as poor sleep, heartburn, anxiety, sluggishness and a low libido. Piles. He felt 10 years older. He craved more and more of these foods high in carbohydrates and fat.
Most worrying were the changes in brain activity – a similar response to taking substances we consider classically addictive such as cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. Imagine how this is affecting the fragile developing brains of our children.
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Dr Frank Luntz told me recently that one of the biggest buzz words for people is “healthy”. Healthy country. Healthy economy. Healthy families. A word which resonates as aspirational. And yet the reality of many of our lives today couldn’t be further from the truth.
No one likes increasing taxes. But those who reject the proposals in the Food Strategy need to weigh up the costs involved for future generations of taxpayers if we do not implement the recommendations. What choice do we really have?
The author is a former Conservative MP and now a life peer. She was chair of the Centre for Social Justice “Off the Scales” working group on childhood obesity in England.