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  • Writer's pictureHannah Kapff

Let’s ‘junk’ Junk Food, and save Children from Obesity

TODAY is National Junk food Day, supposedly a time to revel in indulging in a ‘rare’ calorific treat. So we’ve chosen today to publish our exclusive interview with one this country’s major influencers in Childhood Obesity: Tam Fry, Chair of the National Obesity Forum.

Tam is a man who won’t give up on the bold mission to halve childhood obesity by 2030. It’s sobering to think that at the same time we celebrate 70 years of the NHS, the organisation is paying out £6.1Bn a year on obesity-related conditions. 10% of the entire NHS budget goes on treating diabetes alone, so, add in obesity-related heart disease and musculoskeletal conditions, the future of the NHS for future generations is at stake, as is their quality of life.

“The issue is now so severe we have to take drastic action” – Tam Fry

On the 25th of June, the government released its Second Chapter for the Childhood Obesity: A Plan to Action. The foreword given by the Prime Minister stated, “The health and well-being of our children critically determines their opportunities in life. Today, nothing threatens that more than childhood obesity”.

Sadly, obese and overweight children are now increasingly developing a myriad of health issues such as type 2 diabetes and liver problems in their early childhood years, and are also more likely to go on to develop heart and liver disease as adults. [1] Moreover, overweight or obese children are also more likely to experience bullying, low-esteem and quality of life. Knowing this, the big question is: why are more than 1 in 3 children obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school? As the Curious PR team had special access to Tam, we put such questions to him.

1. CURIOUS PR: Despite parents knowing about healthy eating, and the effects of poor diet, why are they not making more informed food choices?

TAM: This is the big question. But there are as always a number of factors. The major issue I feel has hindered many people from making informed food choices is the way in which food labels confuse customers.

2. CURIOUS PR: Interestingly, we discussed exactly this the other day in our office. In particular, the impact that marketing has had on making informed food choices. We talked about how hard it is to distinguish between falsely advertised ‘healthy foods’ and foods that are actually nutritious

TAM: Yes – this is a major issue. The food industry should list all ingredients in a way that allows people to make informed decisions. Lots of food items now market themselves as healthy and low fat, but you don’t know what else is in there. It is worth noting that sugar is pretty much in all processed foods. So one of the things you need to know when you are choosing your food is what kind of sugar is used. At the moment, most food labels quote ‘carbohydrates with sugars’, but this doesn’t tell you what kind of sugars they are, whether they are natural fructose or added sucrose.

If they are natural fructose then that is good, you know that it is better for you. So if consumers were shown which sugars were in the food, they could make more informed decisions. However, one thing that could be a potential saviour, is that when and if we leave the common market, we will have total control over how we categorise food, because food up until now has had the jurisdiction of the European Union. All food labels are tightly controlled by the EU: we are not allowed to do anything with this. So we could get labelling properly re-done.

3. CURIOUS PR: We read last week that part of the crack down on junk food is going to involve a ban on advertisements that show junk food on children’s television. Do you think that will make a difference? [Check out this KFC advert from the 1990s: How many times is the word ‘big’ used?!]

TAM: No, because a substantial amount of children watch programmes like X-factor, which are seen to be ‘adult or family’ programmes, and they are stuffed full of adverts that promote high fat, salt, sugar, foods (HFSS). So what is needed initially is a total ban on HFSS food advertisements before 9pm. Furthermore, because so many children are now not watching so much television, instead spending their time on tablets, computers and phones, the ban needs to be extended to all social media.

It will be a hard fight as there is so much vested interest from those who make these food products, who rely on such advertising. But the issue is now so severe, we have to take drastic action!

4. CURIOUS PR: Other than banning advertising on TV and social media until 9pm, what other initiatives do you think could work well to reduce childhood obesity in the UK and why?

TAM: Portion control. It wouldn’t cost anything, but would have a terrific outcome. If you got people to halve the portions they were eating, for instance.

CURIOUS PR: But how do you do that? That’s quite a big ask, and people don’t always listen?

TAM: Well one thing is to get the ‘out of home’ food industry to abide by rules that mean they cannot produce a portion that is more than 450 calories. So for example, McDonalds couldn’t produce a burger that exceeded 400 calories. Interestingly, I was recently asked to comment on the new McDonalds summer range, of which there are 3 or 4 burgers with 600+ calories – an atrocity!

5. CURIOUS PR: What do you think about the call to ban fast-food outlets near schools? Can it be done, and will it work?

TAM: There is a big problem with fast food outlets that has not been addressed in the UK. In the run up to the 2015 election, the LGA, local government association (which represents all local councils around the country) said to the government, We have a real problem with fast food outlets. What we want is more power to enable us to refuse planning permission to companies such as KFC, McDonalds, Burger King et al, which are littering our areas with fast food outlets – useful for revenue, employment, local produce – yet, increasingly detrimental to school children’s health.

The councils want that control. What happens at the moment is that KFC, for example, applies for permission to open a shop, and when the planning permission is refused, KFS takes the council to court. It means it is a never-ending cycle – and the fast food outlet usually wins…

However, what councils can do is modify when these shops are allowed to open. The famous case is Salford, where they have introduced by-laws meaning fast-food outlets cannot sell during school hours. There are various ways in which you can restrict the hours of opening on new applications (not on existing outlets). Ideally I want to see them all shut down. Our high streets are crammed full with fast-food outlets, which are ruinous for health, and crucially encourage youngsters, and people in general to make poor food choices.

6. CURIOUS PR: Are there any particularly strong case studies involving initiatives that have helped this issue, and reduced the rates of childhood and general obesity?

TAM: At the moment there is an operation called CHAMP (Children’s Health and Monitoring Programme) that is running in Manchester. What they are doing is measuring all their children at school every year, and translating the data into BMI. This means that year on year they have a record of which children are heading in the direction of becoming overweight. This then gives them the ability to take children aside who are putting on a dangerous amount of weight, and give them a weight loss course. They say they have made improvements.

The one case study you need to know about is Amsterdam. The government decided that they had too many overweight/obese children, so they decided to run an experiment. They took one area in the city, stripped the whole residential area of any advertisements for fast food, fizzy drinks, sugary foods etc, and saw obesity fall by 12% in this particular area in the first year. What is more interesting is that in the small residential areas within the perimeter that they chose which were socially disadvantaged saw a even higher reduction rate of 18%: a double win! Amsterdam has made significant strides, which have not been made over here yet. The question now, is, can we implement the same initiative in cities across England, like Bristol or Leeds?

7. CURIOUS PR: Do you have any tips for parents who have overweight children, or overweight/obese people in general?

TAM: The mantra that I work to is: if it grows like a plant eat it, if its made in a plant don’t. Anything that is processed, you need to look at it with a keen interest and look at what is in it. If it is foliage, plants and vegetables and fruit etc, you can eat and it will not affect your health adversely. It is processed food and fizzy drinks, that is the issue – so just try to stay away.

8. CURIOUS PR: Do you think that as well as consumers making a change, it should be up to the food industry to help us make healthier choices? For example, the new levy on sugary soft drinks has placed some onus on the manufacturers now – do you think this levy will help?

TAM: I totally agree that it is up to those in the food industry to make a change too.What the levy intended to do, and has done so perfectly, was to get soft drink manufacturers to reduce their sugar content to below 5 grams per 100 ml. If they were able to do this, they avoided paying a levy. However, if they could only reduce the sugar content to 7 grams, they would pay a certain levy, and if they could only reduce it to 8 grams, they would pay an even higher levy. What happened was that all the sugary drinks manufactures got together and decided they didn’t want to pay this levy, so reduced their sugar content. The important thing is that now there are only a few brands that have to pay the levy – the Classic Coke and the Classic Blue Pepsi. The real success is that the government thought that it was going to get £530 Million a year out of the levy, but have had to totally re-appraise their estimate because so many manufactures made the change. (Tam is an expert advisor for the charity, Action On Sugar.)

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care touched upon much of what we discussed with Tam Fry in his opening foreword in the new Action Plan. He noted that “Our attitude to food and drink is changing and changing fast – I am heartened by the progress the foods and drink industry have already made in reformulating products and reducing sugar in soft drinks”.[1]

It seems like the time is now to make sure that other businesses take action, and follow in the footsteps of those forward thinking organisations in order to make real change. We need to empower parents to make informed, healthy food decisions for their families, and we need to protect children from advertising that encourages unhealthy food choices if we are to meet our national ambition of halving childhood obesity rates by 2030.

If you’d like to know more on the topic of obesity, and childhood obesity, Tam Fry recommends reading: McKinsey Global Institute Report on Obesity 2014.

[1] Childhood obesity: a plan to action pg 2

[2] Childhood obesity: a plan to action pg, 1


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