In the run up to the election media attention has focused on the main political parties' policies on Brexit, immigration and national security. But the manifestos also contain key pledges aimed at improving our health.
So are these pledges focusing on the right areas, and are they likely to make any difference?
1. Our unhealthy addiction to sugar is still a primary concern
We are a nation of sweet tooths. And when it comes to sugar consumption, soft drinks appear to be our vice of choice. Soft drinks are by far the largest contributor to children’s sugar consumption, with 24% of 4-18 year olds getting their total sugar allowance from sugary drinks. So it’s not surprising that Labour, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have all committed to keeping the proposed soft drinks levy (dubbed the ‘sugar tax’) on the basis that this will improve health, particularly among children and young people.
The ‘sugar tax’ has also been welcomed by health experts and has already proved effective in getting some drinks companies to reformulate their products, so much so that some will become exempt from paying the tax. However, there is some criticism that the sugar tax will unfairly affect those with lower incomes, and won’t actually change people’s eating habits. National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) data shows that those in lower social economic groups tend to have higher intakes of added sugar, although whether a sugar tax will convince them to consume fewer sugary drinks remains to be seen.
2. Childhood obesity is a national concern, despite recent plateau
Childhood obesity has been on the rise since the mid-1990s and appeared to peak in 2004-5, and has since remained relatively steady since 2008. But the Health Survey for England (HSE) shows that 14% of children aged 2-15 are overweight, with a further 14% obese. Links between obesity and conditions like high blood pressure, type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease is well-established, which is why the parties want to tackle obesity as early as possible.
While the focus on improving the health on children in primary schools is an important factor in reducing childhood obesity, there is a risk that older children and teenagers may be overlooked. NDNS tells us that it is 11-18 year olds (not children of primary school age) that have the poorest diets: in 2012-14, only 8% of 11-18 year olds met the five-a-day recommendation, and mean intake of saturated fat was well above recommended levels. And only 1 in 5 children aged 5-15 met the recommended hour of exercise a day, with teenagers aged 13-15 being the most sedentary. So any attempt to reduce childhood obesity needs to include an emphasis on getting teenagers to eat better and exercise regularly.
3. More people want to know what’s in their food
While many food producers and supermarkets already use traffic light labelling on their products, the Liberal Democrats have promised to further encourage this system, as well as urging restaurants and takeaways to provide more information on calorie, fat, sugar and salt content of food served. And there seems to be some public appetite for this: over half of adults who had eaten at a restaurant in the last month would like to see more information about nutrition content and healthy eating options.
The Conservatives have also pledged to continue to promote efforts to reduce unhealthy ingredients, and provide clearer food information for consumers. This would undoubtedly reassure the majority of the population, as only 34% of adults told us they are always confident that the food they buy is what it says it is on the label.
4. Junk food advertising has an impact on children
Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP have included a restriction of unhealthy food advertising in their manifestos in order to reduce childhood obesity. Advertisers are already banned from advertising foods that are high in fat, salts and sugar (HFSS) during children’s television programmes, but not at other times. NatCen’s recent research found that, despite current regulations, children aged 8-12 are exposed to HFSS adverts on television and via other sources, especially social media, and thought that these adverts had the capacity to influence them and their peers. Therefore, if public health policy aims to reduce the intake of HFSS foods in the UK in the future, young people’s current exposure to HFSS adverts, on television and via other media, will need to be addressed.
When it comes to public health, the main parties appear to be in agreement that reducing obesity and unhealthy behaviours are important issues to be addressed. And it's for voters to decide who will take the best approach.
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With thanks to Andy MacGregor