Digesting diet and health: the challenges of eating well

Diet-related health problems are rarely out of the news. That’s because so many illnesses and diseases are the result of poor diet. There’s no shortage of suggestions for improving our diet, and for educating all of us on the benefits of eating well.

Policymakers are also concerned about this issue. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHS has been under greater pressure than ever, and government has been keen to address diet-related health problems.  

Examples of this include the most recent legislation to add calorie labelling to  restaurants and takeaways, which has been controversial. The new rules for England make it a legal requirement for large businesses with more than 250 employees, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to display calorie information of non-prepacked food and soft drinks.  The Scottish Government is consulting on similar proposals.

Sugar and salt taxes

Another example of regulations directed towards diet-related health problems would be taxes on sugar and salt in foods. There have been suggestions to either tax all foods based on their salt content, or specific foods which are classed as “high” in salt.

A sugar tax – the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – was introduced in April 2018 by the UK Government. It was later reported that consumers had bought 10% less sugar through soft drinks, which will also have lowered risks of obesity, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

A report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies in 2021, looked at the impacts a tax on added sugar and salt could have on purchases of food both at home and out of the home in the UK. The report found that a salt tax could potentially see a decrease in risks of coronary heart disease and strokes.

In addition, the study suggested a salt tax could reduce the number of NHS treatments for obesity-related conditions, resulting in  lower NHS costs. The report also indicated an increase in overall economic output due to a healthier workforce.

However, there may also be less welcome consequences. A ‘snack tax’ has been estimated to potentially add as much as £3.4billion a year to families’ shopping bills. Introducing such a tax during the current cost of living crisis would add greatly to the financial stresses being experienced by households across the country.

Counting the calories

Displaying the number of calories in meals on menus has long been proposed as a way to tackle obesity and health issues, as so many people are unaware of just what is in the food they order. Public opinion is extremely divided on this subject, with some being in favour of this extra measure to help them when eating out if they wish to make healthier choices.

However, adding calorie information to menus may have undesirable effects. 1.25 million people in the United Kingdom have an eating disorder, and the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have increased this number as more people struggle with mental illness and increased stress.

Beat, a UK-based eating disorder charity, has highlighted  that calorie labelling exacerbates eating disorders of all kinds. In addition, pushing a “diet culture” could send the wrong messages about eating rather than embracing a more positive approach towards food.

A further  study by the British Medical Journal reported only a small decrease in calories purchased when trialling calorie labelling in three chain restaurants in the United States. The researchers also found that after one year, that reduction diminished.

Meeting in the middle?

Another suggestion that has been discussed is tackling health-related inequalities, and understanding why certain groups are more vulnerable to these issues than others. For example, the House of Commons library has reported that in England people living in the most deprived areas were 9% more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the least deprived areas. The briefing also reported that  children in the most deprived areas of England were twice as likely to be obese.. More education focusing on not only what is healthy food, but how to be healthy with fewer resources could help reduce such inequalities.

Final thoughts

From tooth decay and high blood pressure to cancer, eating disorders and mental ill health, there are significant health and wellbeing impacts resulting from unhealthy eating habits. These issues also have serious consequences for healthcare services.

As we’ve seen, legislation has already been introduced to tackle diet-related health problems. But it’s likely that government will have to consider further measures to ensure that the food that we eat is both good for individuals and for wider society.

Further reading: more on food and nutrition from The Knowledge Exchange blog

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