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

Young carers: sacrifice and support

While there has been a lot of conversation about the vulnerable over the last two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rightly so, there has not much attention given to the people who care for them, particularly the young people who do so. Young carers carry a lot on their shoulders, and this has only been increased with the impact of the pandemic affecting those they love. However, we also need to look out for these young people and give them the support they deserve.

Issues faced by young carers

Young carers are faced with many challenges due to their position and this can depend on the carers, their age, the level of care they give and who they care for. A report on siblings of disabled children from the UK charity Sibs found that the particular young carers they engaged with tended to not get as much attention and support from their parents because of their sibling needing more urgent care. Even something as simple as going out to play centres or restaurants must be adapted to fit the disabled sibling, with the carer sibling rarely getting their own choice.

Young carers have also been found to be at more risk of mental health problems than others, particularly if the person they are caring for is a parent with a mental illness or a history of substance misuse.  A study from Scotland found that young carers, much like adult unpaid carers, were more likely to have physical health issues such as tiredness, backache and bad diets in addition to reporting worry, stress, anxiety, depression and resentment. They were also found to have significantly lower self-esteem and feelings of happiness than non-carers.

Impact of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic impacted young carers greatly. Sibs reported that a lot of parents felt their carer children were extremely worried about contracting the virus and giving it to their sibling, or bringing it into the household if their family were shielding or vulnerable. Others also reported their child withdrawing from friends, either because of shielding or simply because they were uncomfortable socialising outside of their household. Sibs also noted cases where siblings would become the object of their disabled sibling’s anger or frustration.

In addition, a lot of activities and support groups normally put into place for these specific carers, in order to give them attention and opportunities to enjoy life outside of their role as a young carer, were cancelled due to COVID-19, and left many young carers at home, where they were often ignored if their sibling or parent needed additional support.

Other young carers have had to take on a range of duties, including shopping for their families or taking care of their home or other siblings. A lot of these young people have had to balance this with continuing their education from home and dealing with having their lives outside of the home cut off due to social distancing and isolation. This is on top of the general struggles of growing up as a child and adolescent. Izzy, a 12-year-old interviewed by a study from the Centre for Research on Children and Families, said she felt her entire life was “being a mini adult, but it’s not a pick and choose the time sort of thing.” 

Support

There have been a range of support services for young carers across the United Kingdom. Young carers groups have been found to be a great resource to help find other young carers and share some of the issues that affect them with people who understand. These groups  are also important as an outlet outside of their role in the family home, providing support  solely for  young carers. Even during the pandemic, some groups were able to schedule calls for young carers which provided them with interaction just for them, and something to look forward to each week at home.

However, many young carers remain “hidden” from services, either out of choice or because they have been ignored. Some simply don’t know about support groups or services, or have been found to not consider themselves ‘carers’. Instead, they  view their lives as “normal” or doing something that’s “expected” of them. Others may be afraid of the stigma their particular situation may bring them, and therefore want to be perceived as the same as their fellow students.

Final thoughts

The pandemic has pushed conversation and debate towards how we care for the most vulnerable in our society, and hopefully will lead to improvements in our attitudes towards care. However, this also has to extend towards unpaid carers, and particularly the young people who often shoulder invisible labour at the expense of their childhood.

Further reading: more from The Knowledge Exchange blog on carers

Health inequalities and ethnic minority communities: breaking down the barriers

Almost from the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, its unequal impact on ethnic minorities has been clear. But the health inequalities experienced by Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities predate the pandemic. As the Local Government Association has observed:

“…the truth is these inequalities were already having an impact on the health and wellbeing of ethnic minority communities before COVID-19 hit – it is just that the pandemic has shone a light on them like nothing before.”

Recently, the Centre for Ageing Better hosted a webinar titled “Ethnic health inequalities in later life,” based on the report of the same name, published in November 2021.

The report mainly looked at the period from 1993 to 2017, although the webinar was able to offer more recent information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, which of course greatly affected health inequalities.

Widening inequalities

Dr. Sarah Stopforth, one of the researchers for this study, explained that  ethnic inequalities have been found to widen more after the age of 30, and by the age of 40 have established themselves. One of the study’s main findings was that poor health for White British women in their 80s was the equivalent to the poor health of African and Caribbean women in their 70s, and the equivalent to Pakistani and Bangladeshi women in their 50s.

While there were similar results for men from these same ethnic groups, it is clear that women across all ethnicities have poorer health than their male counterparts. Why is this happening?

The reasons are complex, but Sara suggested that  health inequalities are usually tied to the socio-economic inequalities present in our society. However, she also said that this tends to ignore the underlying causes of these health outcomes.

The role of the NHS

Dr. Habib Naqvi from NHS England talked about the role of the NHS in tackling health inequalities. He asserted that our healthcare system should be well equipped to respond to these inequalities, given the UK’s long history of migration by people from Afro-Caribbean communities. So why has it not been able to?

A lot of this, he explained, was due to the fragmentation of the NHS. The many areas of the sector are not working co-operatively to reach a collective and consistent goal, which then affects the ability to tackle issues such as inequalities in the sector.

In addition, Dr Naqvi pointed to mortality rates for ethnic minority groups – living longer does not always mean living in a healthy way. One of the features of “long Covid,” is its tendency to exacerbate long-standing health complications or to weaken COVID-19 patients’ health even after the illness. Again, ethnic minority communities have been disproportionately affected by this condition.

Another impact of  the COVID-19 pandemic has been a heightened feeling of isolation and fear for many ethnic minority groups, something highlighted in a report from the University of Manchester. Many were unable to communicate with healthcare staff due to language barriers or health conditions affecting their communication skills, and were often having to be admitted alone due to Covid restrictions. The inability of patients from ethnic minority backgrounds  speak for themselves raises concerns about their healthcare. Research has found evidence that ethnic minority patients – especially women – are not having their illnesses taken seriously.  

Vaccine hesitancy

Linked to this is the controversial issue of vaccine hesitancy, which has become a particular concern among ethnic minority groups. One of the reasons that many members of ethnic minorities may feel hesitant or scared to take the vaccination is because of the lack of communication and information, linked with their previous healthcare experiences.

It was suggested during the webinar that even throughout the pandemic, the healthcare sector has not effectively protected ethnic minorities, despite these health inequalities long being known.  Health professionals have attempted to reach out to communities and help them with any fears regarding COVID-19 or the vaccination process, but this can be difficult with social distancing restrictions. As a result, people within BAME communities may have to rely on family and friends to get information regarding vaccination, which may not calm their fears.

Data, care and trust

One of the key points driven home by Dr. Naqvi was the need for better data in order to better understand health inequalities among ethnic minority communities. Birth to end-of-life care was also mentioned, including tackling racial bias that can be found even in antenatal care. Finally, the concept of earning trust was highlighted. Dr. Naqvi said that the NHS must work to earn trust from BAME communities, particularly among the elderly, given the long-standing disparities in treatment and discrimination many have faced over the years.

Final thoughts

The webinar offered useful insights into how deeply healthcare inequalities lie. Our previous blog post on the future of public health offered a reminder that access to efficient, well-supported and high quality healthcare is vital for everyone. This webinar underlined that message, but highlighted its special significance for those experiencing longstanding health inequalities.

Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash


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More than growing pains: young people and mental health

woman sleeping on brown armchair

The last few decades have seen increasing rates of mental health disorders among children and young people. But while children and young people’s mental health is currently high on the public agenda, many of these mental health conditions remain unrecognised and untreated.

The NHS conducted a Mental Health Survey for Children and Young People in 2017, interviewing 3,667 children and young people, which was followed up in 2021. The follow-up survey found that 39.2% of 6 to 16 year olds had experienced a decrease in their mental health since 2017, while approximately 52% of 17 to 23 year olds also reported a decrease. Within these last four years, a number of factors appear to have impacted these figures, including the continued rise and prominence of social media platforms, family life, and, of course, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Impact of the pandemic

The beginning of the pandemic marked the closure of all schools, colleges and universities. Not only were young people faced with the anxiety and stress associated with living through a global pandemic, particularly for those who are immunocompromised or have family members who are, but these closures also cut off access to resources for mental health problems. A survey by YoungMinds in January 2021 found that among over 2000 participants who were under the age of 25 in the UK with a history of mental illness, 75% agreed that they were finding the current lockdown harder to cope with than the previous ones, and 67% believed that the pandemic will have a long-term negative effect on their mental health.

Peer support groups and face to face services such as counselling that could be accessed through school were closed, or made accessible through the internet or over the phone. While this does offer some kind of continued support, it is not a form of support that works for everyone and many young people were left feeling unsupported. The YoungMinds report emphasised that any future provision must recognise the value of face to face interaction alongside virtual and digital forms of support.

Alongside issues with access to support, school closures  also disrupted routines, which for many people of all ages with mental health problems can be particularly important as a coping mechanism. It has been suggested that being unable to attend school or university in person, or part-time jobs, can lead to a relapse in symptoms where young people relied on these routines. Refusing to undertake typical daily activities such as showering, getting out of bed and eating sufficient meals are some of the effects seen amongst these young people – all which can exacerbate feelings of depression or loneliness.

Role of families

Families have been found to play a vital part in helping young people who are suffering from mental health issues. This has only become more apparent with the impact of COVID-19 lockdowns, where young people would most likely be living with their family – whether that be parents, siblings or other relatives or caregivers. Lockdown guidelines that mandated staying at home would leave these young people spending more time with their families, and the closure of other services outwith the home, meant these young people’s households often became their main support system. The NHS follow-up survey found that both family connectedness and family functioning were associated with mental disorder, highlighting the importance of supporting families to enable them to support young people’s mental health.

The Local Government Association has recently published a guide on a “whole household approach” to young people’s mental health, stressing the importance of educating families on how to support their young people. This is highlighted as particularly important when they transition from child services to adult services as many teenagers and young people struggle with the lack of support offered when they are legally considered adults.

Social media

Another big issue affecting young people’s mental health is the use of social media. While there are many reported benefits of social media, particularly in relation to connecting with others, there are also growing concerns about its effects on wellbeing and the pandemic has undoubtedly exacerbated this. The NHS survey found that, in 2021, half (50.7%) of 11-16 year olds agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and 16.7% using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Those with a probable mental disorder were particularly likely to spend more time on social media than they intended, and girls seem to be more affected that boys.

The survey found that 21.1% of girls reported that likes, comments and shares from social media affected their mood, compared to 12.1% of boys. It also found that double the number of girls than boys spent more time on social media than they meant to. Other research has also highlighted the disproportionate impact on young girls. One study found that constant social media use predicted lower wellbeing in girls only and that these mental health harms may be due to a combination of cyberbullying, and a lack of sleep or exercise. This was not found in the teenage boys interviewed.

Solutions

When addressing mental health problems, it is clear that a ‘one size fits all’ approach does not work. As highlighted in the research, mental health problems can present themselves in a range of ways, and depend on a number of variables.  People from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, or those with additional needs, often face more stigma and can find it more difficult to express their problems or access the correct support for their specific needs.

There have been suggestions for more targeted support for young people and the issues they may be facing, including more investment in schools and social services. Particularly for adolescents who are transitioning to adulthood, it is important to provide continuous support. As highlighted in the NHS Mental Health Survey, more adolescents and young adults (17 to 23 year olds) mentioned a decrease in their mental health than younger people (6 to 16 year olds). Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services (CYPMHS) notes that the transition from child to adult mental health services tends to begin around three to six months before the individual turns 18, although there can be flexibility.  Perhaps even greater flexibility is required, particularly as we assess the damage left by the pandemic. It is argued that engaging adolescents in the provision of mental health services and a shift towards early intervention and prevention will also be important as we look to build new solutions.


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The future of public health: lessons from the pandemic

woman in white and black polka dot shirt with face mask

The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has impacted all sectors of our society, but none more-so than public health services.

Last month, The Health Foundation hosted a webinar discussing the lessons from the pandemic and the future role of public health. The webinar drew on the findings from The Kings Fund report “Directors of public health and the COVID-19 pandemic”.  It considered the issues facing public health as a result of COVID-19, and proposed steps to rebuild the healthcare sector and begin tackling the problems left as we slowly move out of the pandemic.

Lack of resources

One of the main themes of the webinar was raised by Shilpa Ross of The Kings Fund, who explained that a lack of resources and shortages in public health existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The impact of longer term reductions to the public health grant meant that health services were not ready for the pandemic, nor for how long it has lasted. This has had a knock-on effect elsewhere in the NHS. A Care Quality Commission report noted that in July 2021, almost 300,000 people were waiting more than 52 weeks to begin hospital treatment.

On top of this, public health has faced staff shortages. Because so many healthcare services are “fishing in the same pond for recruits,” Shilpa explained that it has been especially hard to fill vacancies. In addition, many healthcare workers have experienced short and long-term effects of the virus, and the additional workloads have left many stressed and burnt out. The disruption to education could further delay the training and employment of potential new healthcare workers.

While the NHS has in some cases set up drop-in sessions for support and made efforts to provide even basic support, such as bottled water to aid hydration, these cannot fill the hole created by healthcare staff shortages.

Widening inequalities

Professor Kevin Fenton of Public Health England argued that “inequalities have defined the pandemic,” and would be the legacy of the last year and a half. A 2020 report by the Institute of Health Equity, commissioned by The Health Foundation, found that in England members of Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups (BAME) were more likely to be affected by COVID-19. The report attributed this partly to people in these groups living in more deprived areas, working in occupations with a higher exposure risk to the virus (such as healthcare or customer service roles), and in some cases living with multiple generations in their home (complicating self-isolation). The authors contended that while inequalities in social and economic conditions were present before the pandemic, they contributed to the unequal death toll resulting from COVID-19.

These inequalities have widened, partly due to the shortage of resources and staff. It has only grown more difficult to address the ever increasing numbers of people needing treatment, both urgent and non-urgent. As a result, the most vulnerable in society have fallen by the wayside.

Changing how public health works

The webinar also discussed how public health can move forward as the country slowly returns to a new form of normal. In addition to the restructuring of Public Health England, a new tax – the Health and Social Care Levy – will put an additional £12 billion into health and social care over the next three years. However, money alone is not enough – the webinar participants agreed that the infrastructures and inner workings of public health must evolve as we move towards a more efficient system of working.

Professor Fenton stressed the importance of engaging with local communities, and that the response towards the pandemic going forward must be grounded in their experiences, and what they need from both the public health system and also local authorities. He noted that while there may be pressure to go back to the way things operated before the pandemic, we must move forward: by understanding what worked and what didn’t, progress and better services can be achieved. Shilpa Ross added that a more targeted and tailored approach to health inequalities has provided more significant results in terms of vaccination and testing rates. This has in turn raised levels of trust within communities that public health teams may not have engaged with before the pandemic. All of this, however, takes up precious time.

Professor Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire County Council, highlighted the importance of prevention not only for COVID-19 moving forward but other health conditions.  He stated that they must be tackled at a place where they can stop others continuing to be affected, in addition to treating those who are currently being affected.  Robin Tuddenham, Accountable Officer for NHS Calderdale Clinical Commissioning Group, agreed, and stressed that problems like homelessness and poverty should not be seen as separate from health but rather as important factors in the prevention of ill health.

Concluding thoughts

Highlighting the underlying issues and difficulties affecting public health before the pandemic is one step towards addressing them.

The webinar demonstrated that the pandemic has shifted how public health is perceived and valued. It has reminded all of us how important access to efficient, well-supported and high quality healthcare really is. Those working in decision-making roles in the healthcare sector are clearly looking towards the next steps for public health and how to give people the highest quality and most efficient care possible. With this in mind, the pandemic may have created a stepping stone towards a better healthcare system.


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