Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum - The Obesity Debate in 2014

Obesity in 2014

The Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum events have always been a bellwether of the obesity debate and the evolving priorities of the community of stakeholders that attend.  The first such event of 2014 was no exception.

Whilst the theme – Commissioning services, engaging business and encouraging healthy choices had a particularly medical focus, the range of speakers – from industry, science, central and local government as well as medicine paved the way for one of the most wide ranging discussions yet.  In summarizing the first session alone, Chairman and Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger listed schools, transport, social marketing population-level measures, chocolate in hospitals and the NHS among the subjects broached.

Industry in the spotlight?

In contrast to previous events, one topic that scarcely got a mention was food labelling.  With the UK hybrid scheme and the EU Food Information to Consumers Regulation due for implementation in 2014, one could argue that either this particular debate was over – or that PowerPoint coloured lozenge fatigue had finally set in!

Unsurprisingly given the media attention it has recently ‘enjoyed’ sugar reduction (and taxation) did feature, but on the whole, the recurring industry brickbats – marketing, reformulation, promotions received only passing mentions.

The Role of the Individual

In their place, the role of the individual in changing their own – and producers’ – behaviour featured highly.  Deputy Director of Obesity Policy and Research the Department of Health, Richard Cienciala spoke of the desire to get to a position where the public was ‘pulling’ in this direction.  While there was ‘awareness’, there was little in the way of ‘momentum’.

Options for how to achieve this momentum – both at individual and population level included shock tactics – using billboards in the same manner as those used to communicate about AIDS in the 1980s or telling parents that overfeeding children was as bad as subjecting them to smoke or alcohol.  From the floor, Baroness Jenkin gave the example of a friend who was shocked into weight loss by the start news from his GP that he would not see his children grow up.

Such approaches were not universally applicable, however, and Richard Cienciala spoke of the need for balance between messages that were ‘hard-hitting’ and those that were ‘encouraging’.  Much of the discussion focused on the challenge of reaching vulnerable populations, and the need for special attention to be paid to socially deprived communities where the obesity rates were highest – and continuing to grow.

Drivers of Change: Consumers, Politicians or Media?

Tom Tanner from the Sustainable Restaurant Association spoke about how consumers themselves were becoming the drivers of change.  Health had risen from seventh to equal first in the priorities of what customers looked for in a ‘sustainable’ restaurant – while 45% of his members wanted restaurants to communicate more about their efforts in this sphere.


Above all, the event was a marked – and refreshing – contrast to the prevailing media coverage of the obesity epidemic.  Indeed the media’s influence was criticised for being either confusing (the fat versus sugar argument) or counter-productive (The Biggest Loser and similar programmes).

This tangible discrepancy between how experts view obesity and the media perspective represents a dilemma for the major political parties as they pull together their manifesto promises on this topic.

While simplistic solutions and scapegoats may grab the media headlines, the Forum event demonstrated that this is out of step with the expert call – for solutions that were multi-factoral, tailoured and evidence based-  but  above all for leadership.

With 15 months until the election, which of the political parties will show it?