Why the Government's Anti-Obesity Strategy Won't Work

From mandatory calorie labelling on chain restaurant menus to doctors being paid to refer patients to Weight Watchers, let's look at exactly what's wrong with the "Better Health" campaign.
burger and chips
Photo: Bob Foster

On Monday, Public Health England launched a new national anti-obesity strategy outlining a number of measures meant to “encourage millions to lose weight and cut [the risks of] COVID-19”.

The opening paragraphs of the announcement are full of statistics that will inevitably bounce around the news for months: two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, 8 percent of critically ill COVID-19 patients in intensive care have been morbidly obese, obesity-related illnesses cost the NHS £6 billion per year.


These statistics may be indisputable, but they are framed in a way that communicates a clear message to the public: fat people are the problem. And forget about human lives, this problem will cost the NHS and the country the most important thing of all: money.

Many of the measures outlined in the package have already been met with outrage online, as well as criticism from eating disorder charities, but let’s take a look at exactly what they are and why exactly they’re so crap.


What is it? This most pointless part of the campaign will see adverts for food high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) banned on TV and online before the watershed, “when children are most likely to see them”.

What is it supposed to do? This will, apparently, discourage kids from wanting to eat unhealthily, and help to stop childhood obesity.

What will it actually do? Fuck all. An extension of previous regulations that saw, for instance, toys removed from cereal boxes, this move seriously overestimates how many adverts children consume in the age of online and on-demand content. The government’s own research found that an advert ban would only reduce each UK child’s calorific intake by a negligible 1.7 calories a day. Also, it’s already been a thing for ages, in some shape or other, and has made absolutely no difference.


What is it? Legislation that will restrict the promotion of foods high in fat and sugar, such as “buy one get one free” offers. There will also be a ban on these items being placed in prominent locations, like checkouts and entrances, both in shops and online.


What is it supposed to do? By making unhealthy foods less tempting, fewer people will eat them and will “logically” become thinner.

What will it actually do? It is far from an exaggeration when I say this will starve people. In particular, working class people who rely on discounts to feed their families. Responding to the measure, Charlotte – a 53-year-old mother from South Wales, working on a limited income – says this will damage the most disadvantaged families.

“A lot of families can’t get to the big supermarkets and have to rely on what’s local, because even a bus fare to and from the shops has to be included in a household budget,” she tells me. “Often shops like Co-Op will have meal deals of, say, chicken nuggets, chips, peas and garlic bread, with ice cream for dessert, for a fiver. You could spend the five quid on veg to make soup or a stew, but at least I know kids will eat the frozen meal and it will fill them up. If kids don't like the healthy option, many mams won’t have the time or the money to make them a new meal.”


What is it? The “Better Health” campaign includes a free, NHS-approved, 12-week weight loss plan app to help individuals track their calorie intake and reduce their BMI.

What is it supposed to do? Help people who are living with obesity to “develop healthier eating habits, get more active and lose weight”.

What will it actually do? Like all weight loss apps, it will encourage disordered eating, only this time it comes with a government stamp of approval. This is especially frustrating, as both calorie counting and BMI weight loss methods have been shown to be bullshit.


“The campaign will encourage people with eating disorders to use the promoted weight loss app, which fails to prevent under-18s or people with low weights from using it, despite it not being suitable for them,” Andrew Rashford, Chief Executive of the UK eating disorder charity BEAT, explained in a press release. “It is worrying to see a renewed emphasis on measures such as calorie labelling, as evidence clearly shows that these risk exacerbating eating disorders of all kinds.”


What is it? Large restaurants, cafes and takeaways with more than 250 employees will be required to add calorie labels to menus and all food they sell.

What is it supposed to do? More people are eating out these days, consuming more calories than they would at home. Providing a calorie count on menus will supposedly “help people make healthier, informed choices as part of a balanced diet”.

What will it actually do? Again, fuck all – besides, again, primarily attacking working class people.

Diners visiting independent small plate restaurants will not be confronted with the toxic calorie counts on their menus, but those who can only afford a Bella Italia for their birthday meal will be informed in bold red writing that it will make them fat/fatter – and, as the government clearly wants us to realise, being fat is the worst thing you can possibly be.

Grace, a 25-year-old Londoner, also points out that “the government is wielding a double edged sword” by shaming junk food and launching the “Eat Out to Help Out” campaign on the same day. “You’re simultaneously telling people to go out for food while attacking them for doing so,” Grace explains.


It’s worth impressing again at this point that calorie counting is not only dangerous, but can become an eating disorder all of its own.


What  is it? Alcohol will now have calorie labels on the packaging.

What is it supposed to do? Due to a common ignorance of the different calorie counts of alcoholic beverages, “around 3.4 million adults are consuming an additional days’ worth of calories each week”. By providing nutritional information, people can make “better” choices about what they drink.

What will it actually do? Besides our previous points about calorie counting: best of luck to anyone who thinks that clearly highlighting the amount of sugar in a can of Stella will have a positive impact on the UK’s drinking habits!


What is it? From 2021, doctors will be offered incentives to ensure that people living with obesity are “given support for weight loss”. Primary care staff will “also have the opportunity to become ‘healthy weight coaches’.”

What is it supposed to do? Doctors will literally be given money to refer fat people to programmes like Slimming World, Weight Watchers and NHS weight loss services when treating them. This will stop obesity costing £6 billion per year and further encourage plus-size patients to lose weight.

What will it actually do? If you have ever been fat, British and used an NHS service, tell me if you find this scenario familiar: you enter A&E because your leg has been gnawed off by mutated sewer rats and aliens have laid eggs in the wound. You require help with this affliction. The doctor takes one look at you and says: have you ever considered weight loss?


NHS professionals already advise weight loss as treatment for plus-size patients regardless of what their complaint is. The only difference now is it’ll be rewarded with a heavier pay packet for doctors, while plus-size patients increasingly avoid seeking help from the NHS.

“Countless times I’ve had doctors who aren't my chronic illness specialists try to get me on weight loss plans,” Ione, a 26-year-old with a chronic illness, tells me. “It even put me off getting a smear test, as I had a particularly insensitive nurse who continuously told me to lose weight despite me informing her of my condition and the reasons I don't actively want to. I've also been prescribed weight loss pills that would harm my condition further. This policy will embolden both the public and health professionals to be even more fatphobic, which only limits the lives we can lead.”

This latest “anti-obesity drive” reeks of a fatphobia and classism that will only fuel already rampant misinformation around obesity. Instead of targeting the socioeconomic factors that can contribute to obesity and investing in services accordingly, the government is once again laying blame at the foot of the individual.

The Tories, it seems, would rather imply that fat people are to blame for Britain's high COVID-19 figures and our struggling NHS. They would rather continue to fuel animosity towards those who are already shat upon, rather than address the long-lasting damage of their own lazy, self-serving policies.