Read more : Read more : Ryan Shorthouse: Tackling obesity

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Tackling obesity

Over the past decade, the number of British people who are obese has risen dramatically. Nearly a quarter of 11-15 year old boys are now obese, substantially higher than the 14% who were in 1995. By 2050, nearly 60% of the total population will be obese. The Health Secretary's determination to attempt to tackle the obesity epidemic is therefore welcome.

The Department of Health (DofH) published "Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives" last week. One idea in the report was that Government would pay people if they lost weight, ate healthily, and were consistently physically active. This proved deeply controversial. The radio waves were full of angry people expressing their irritation that overweight people get money to keep in shape whilst they pay hundreds of pounds a year for a gym membership

The main issue I have is I don't think it would work. Government cannot make people lose weight. Only people themselves can do that. Obese people already have to face the humiliation of stepping into a society that is obsessed with appearance. Many feel ostracised, lonely and ashamed: if these horrible feelings are not incentives to change eating habits, a DofH cash incentive certainly won't be.

Government, however, can create an environment to help people make choices that will keep them healthy. It can encourage schools to provide at least five hours of sport a week and run extra-curricular activities in the evening. It can improve the safety of public spaces so children have the option of playing outside and burning off energy. It can ban the advertising of junk food to children on the Television so they don’t persistently crave foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. Government can also increase police numbers on the streets so adults are more likely to feel safe jogging.

To be fair, the Government are committed to some of these ideas. But it is wrong in its assumption that it can make people lose weight. What it can do is create circumstances that will increase the chances of individuals making choices to improve their health.

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