Obesity still rising, but better news on fruit and veg consumption

The Health Survey for England monitors trends in the nation’s health, and the latest figures show obesity is still rising.

The prevalence of obesity has generally fluctuated between 23% and 27% between 2003 and 2016, but last year it was 29%.

The survey showed that most adults surveyed (64% of 8,000) were overweight or obese in 2017. Approximately a third of children (30% of 2,000 surveyed) aged two to 15 in England were also overweight or obese.

In August 2016, the government launched its plan to tackle childhood obesity. There was an update earlier this year, with more detail and the promise of a clampdown on promotions for unhealthy foods, a ban on sweets and treats at checkouts, improved public procurement standards and a possible ban on selling energy drinks to children. A target to halve childhood obesity by 2030 was even reinserted.

Following the “alarming” survey results, campaigners and health experts have called on the government to restrict junk food advertising, implement a standardised system of nutritional labels and curb the rise in fast food outlets. “Rather than seeing improvement, there is in fact, an overall increase in levels of obesity,” said BMA board of science chair, Professor Dame Parveen Kumar.

Caroline Cerny, Obesity Health Alliance lead, said children today are growing up in increasingly obesogenic environments. “[They are] bombarded by promotions for unhealthy food and drinks in stores and on the high street, and exposed to countless junk food adverts online and during the TV programmes they watch most. Without urgent action, we will continue to see the cycle of obesity perpetuate from each generation to the next.”

For the first time, the survey researchers also analysed the association between parent and child weight, looking at those who are overweight and obese. Some 28% of children of an obese mother were also obese, compared with 8% of children whose mother was not overweight or obese. Meanwhile, 24% of children of an obese father were also obese, compared with 9% of children where the father was not overweight or obese. Around half of parents (47% of mothers and 52% of fathers) think that their obese child is “about the right weight”.

There was better news in relation to consumption of healthy foods. Last year, 29% of adults ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day, which is low but still higher than the 24% to 26% since 2008. The mean portions eaten per day also increased to 3.8 – between 2009 and 2016 it ranged between 3.5 and 3.6.

Young people, aged 16 to 24, consumed the lowest number of portions per day (3.3) and were the least likely group to manage five-a-day. However, only 18% of children aged five to 15 ate the recommended portions, with the mean remaining stable at 3.2 per day. Higher fruit and veg consumption levels were also associated with higher income.

There is hope that next year’s results could be even better, thanks to a scheme to increase the amount of veg in foodservice and supermarket products. In its first year, Peas Please reported that an extra 4.8m portions of veg have been served in the eight months until July 2018. And it’s the foodservice sector that has been setting the early pace led by the likes of BaxterStorey and PwC, which has already hit its initial target of increasing the overall percentage of veg purchased across the PwC UK estate to 20% by the end of 2018. Such has been the speed of progress that the target has been raised to 25% by 2020. BaxterStorey, meanwhile, has launched its own company-wide pledge of raising fruit and veg purchases from 12% to 15% by 2019.

Still, more could be done. Research published by the Soil Association last month showed that the government’s £40m school fruit and veg scheme was broken, with teachers highly critical of the quality of produce provided. “Pears are under-ripe and hard, carrots have been sweating in bags for days. Generally, the produce is not as fresh as we would hope, and this means the children don’t eat it,” one teacher said.

In response to a Freedom of Information Request, the Department for Health and Social Care conceded that only 13% of apples and 5% of pears are sourced from the UK. “Government data also showed that the produce supplied through the scheme contains higher pesticide residues than equivalent produce found on supermarket shelves, including pesticides associated with a negative effect upon children’s cognitive development,” the Soil Association noted. It also found that “healthier items such as fresh fruit and salmon are being removed from menus in favour of more affordable but less healthy items such as puddings and biscuits”.

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