Victoria Tower - London

30 Years of UK Obesity Policy, 14 Strategies, Little Success

A recently published report by the Institute for Government offers a succinct dissection of UK obesity policy in the past 30 years in the UK, culminating with recommendations for reform.

Context and Complexity

As a fairly new clinical academic, caring for real people and trying to produce relevant research to influence change, I am relatively naïve about how the policy world operates. So Tackling Obesity was an illuminating read. It provides a broader, macro context for my work, emphasising again the complexity of tackling obesity – this time from a political, governmental angle, with lessons that go beyond the UK.

Some things were unsurprising: 14 strategies since 1992. Some were disturbing: The chart showing the sheer number and brevity of public health ministers responsible for UK obesity policy. With this revolving door how does anything get done? But some were new, or at least the detail and credibility with which they were described. Such as insight into the lack of ownership by government departments, making coherent cross-government strategy difficult.

Who’s Responsible?

Once again, obesity is everyone’s responsibility and no one’s responsibility. Multiple complex drivers, including inequalities in health, need cross government action and political leadership. This is currently lacking. As a home health nurse specialising in obesity, all too familiar with its life-limiting impact, I find the analysis to be strangely familiar. It seems the policy context mirrors the often-disjointed clinical response to obesity. Care services working in silos, each tackling their individual comorbidity, whilst ultimately failing to grasp the impact on the whole person. Understanding these parallels between policy and practice is helpful learning.

Not all the recommendations were convincing. But I agree with the quote from Harry Rutter that long-term vision and strategy are needed. As is the need for improved public engagement around food and health. Perhaps most important is a combined food and health policy unit jointly owned by Defra and the Department for Health and Social Care. It remains to be seen whether the government is listening to these suggestions for tackling obesity.

Click here to read the Institute for Policy report on Tackling Obesity.

Today’s guest post comes from Kath Williamson, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Glasgow in the Department of Human Nutrition. Her doctoral thesis explored the prevalence, service utilization, and patient experience of severe obesity.

Victoria Tower – London, drawing by Alfred Freddy Krupa, licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

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August 17, 2023