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Obesity levels will put great strain on healthcare systems around the world. Policy-makers need to be well prepared

US food labels are soon to receive their first major makeover in 20 years

Thursday 29 May 2014 11:17 BST

Obesity is altering the shape of the average human body. With every passing year, the waistline of this mannequin expands – or it would, if somebody sculpted the data into physical form. New research makes clear the bulge. So great has the surge in obesity been over the past 33 years, a Lancet report reveals, that 2.1 billion people are now classed as overweight. An OECD investigation provides a lens on the shorter term: overall, the world is putting on weight at quite a clip, even though the rate of increase in the past decade slowed in some developed countries, including the UK.

The implications of this for global health are obvious and worrying: fat – as it bulks up the human frame – is linked to a rise in non-communicable diseases, from diabetes, to strokes, and some forms of cancer. And as we get fatter, so too we are living longer – global life expectancy has risen by over a decade since 1970. The combination of these two trends will strain healthcare services worldwide, as more of the population falls chronically ill. By 2025, the UN aims to have halted obesity’s rise. If there is to be a chance of success – and the juggernaut will take some slowing – three kinds of regulation will be needed.

First, individuals should be further encouraged to make sensible dietary choices, or self-regulate. Education on the risks of unhealthy eating has grown across the developed world in recent years – notably led, in America, by the First Lady, Michelle Obama. Governments can help to inform citizens by promoting dietary lessons in school, and refining packaging: US food labels are soon to receive their first major makeover in 20 years – making them less obfuscatory – and the UK is in the process of rolling out a consistent “traffic-light” system to warn shoppers of high calorie counts (although the scheme is a voluntary one, and has been side-stepped altogether by 40 per cent of the market). On its own, however, better information will not suffice. For one, poorer communities may find healthy eating incompatible with household budgets (and 61 per cent of the world’s obese population now lives in the developing world – evidence of the bond between poverty and calorie-rich, nutrition-poor diets).

The second form of regulation requires voluntary corporate buy-in. With the rise of health consciousness, makers and sellers of food have an economic incentive to show concern for the health of their customers. This can be openly professed, such as in Tesco’s recent decision to remove sweets from the checkout. Or it can be subtle. Hi-tech is increasingly being brought to Big Food, with the development of smarter fat substitutes, for example, that allow for less of a compromise between health and taste. Such measures hold promise, and may do more for obesity rates than simply haranguing people to avoid the Golden Arches altogether.

Public health bodies remain sceptical of the food industry’s capacity to self-regulate. A 2013 study in The Lancet concluded that there was “no evidence for benefit…concerning public health”. Ultimately, the responsibility for combating obesity lies with governments. Since many bear at least part of the cost of healthcare, they have ample reason to act. (In the UK, the bill for obesity-related illnesses reaches £5.1bn a year.) Sterner intervention – up to and including taxes on sugary drinks – ought not to be off the menu. Big Food is fighting such change, from New York to Mexico. We hope it loses.

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