Following the release of the National Food Strategy, I spoke live on LBC radio about the various changes that need to happen to improve the nations health.
Why I was on the radio talking about the nations health
Recently, part 2 of the National Food Strategy was published. I welcome the strategy. I welcome all progressive steps to improving the health and nutritional status of our nation. We all deserve better and this is probably the most progressive set of recommendations we’ve seen so far.
But there’s so much to it. It’s not a simple change, a single vertical strategy or an issue resolved by tax.
For the health of our nation to improve it requires many changes, including an integrative approach from healthcare practitioners; a change in how multiple industries approach their role in the food chain; and for health to be considered over profit (I know, feels unlikely!).
My thoughts on the subject led me to call into LBC radio (purely passion driven, I was not prepared at all!) and speak with Nick Ferrari on the subject. I didn’t get to all my points on air so I’ve put some of them down into words in.
Suppress the marketing of processed foods
With a decade in marketing prior to becoming a Nutritional Therapist (NT), I can praise one marketing campaign as much as I can see through another. However, the majority of the public cannot and the growth of processed food marketing has overtaken. Our nation, and our influential children, are being targeted with foods that do not support good health.
Shockingly, only 1.2% of the food and drink advertising on TV is for vegetables. With 80% of young children and 95% of teenagers not eating enough vegetables, we have to review the influence advertising is having on their choices. After all, that’s what the marketing budget is for – to influence and increase revenue.
Jamie Oliver with #AdEnough and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall through Veg Power have both given a voice to this important issue. Recently we have seen the UK Government agree to ban online and pre-9pm junk food ads. Hurrah – and let’s keep going! If we don’t continue to alter this imposing channel of influence, the 86% of parents worrying about what their children eat will continue to fight a tough battle and our obesity epidemic will continue to rise.
Give ingredient and nutrient clarity on packaging
Similarly to how marketing influences consumer choices, so do the overzealous claims and terribly unclear ingredient list on packaging. There is no universally agreed way to show the nutritional value of processed, packaged foods. So unless you learn how to decipher the ingredients list – and the 56 different names for sugar (!!!) – it can be hard to know if you’ve selected something healthy or not.
The traffic light system was helpful in highlighting the levels of ingredients in processed food including sugar, salt and fat. But there is no requirement for food companies to use it nor is there a standardised labelling system. This can end up creating more confusion and people begin to switch off. We need clear, concise and honest labelling and packaging to help the nation make the right choices.
Alter the layout of supermarkets
One of my biggest bug-bears and something that feeds into the two points above. Supermarket layouts are primed for promoting processed foods. Let’s consider two elements of the supermarket layout:
1. The amount of aisle dedicated to selling natural, unprocessed foods (think fruit, veg, meat, fish, dairy, grains and legumes but exclude chicken kievs and fruit yogurts) compared to packaged and processed foods is overwhelmingly in favour of the latter.
2. The central aisle of the supermarket, dedicated to end of aisle promotions is host to more processed foods. Aside from toilet rolls and pet food promotion, the BOGOF offers and 2 for £2 deals are not on apples, bananas and broccoli but manufactured, high-sugar, high-fat, cheap ingredient foods. This needs to change.
It combines advertising and lack of nutritional clarity into one and leans on the price point to influence people’s choices further. There has been discussions around food options sold around checkout areas and the impact this has – we need to consider the central supermarket aisle too. It is just as influential. If it wasn’t, brands wouldn’t pay for those positions.
Improve the collaboration between GP’s and NT’s
In the National Food Strategy, one of the recommendations is for GP’s begin ‘prescribing’ vegetables and exercise before medication for certain conditions where we know food choices have an impact. It sounds like a great idea but I feel it’s a bit short sighted.
For one, the GP has 7 minutes with their patient which we already know is far too short without expecting this to be added in. Secondly, the GP is not nutritionally trained. They receive around 6 hours of nutrition education during their 6 years of medical school. Thirdly, to tell someone to each more vegetables without providing the ‘why’ won’t see much compliance. I don’t personally feel it’s fair to request this of GP’s nor is it their role.
But this is where integrative medicine can really flourish. Studying for over 3 years to understand the impact nutrition has on the body, Nutritional Therapists and Nutritionists are perfectly placed to collaborate with GP’s and support patients/clients with improvements to their food choices and lifestyles. As an NT, this is my role and I’ve already worked with clients, with the support of their GP’s, to put their metabolic health concerns into remission and keep them off medication. This is how we can really help the NHS!
Stop focusing on weight loss alone
As medical professionals, and as a nation, we need to think outside of weight loss. Yes, weight loss is sometimes necessary for health to improve but if doctors simply tell patients to ‘lose weight’ how does that assist the person to actually do so? Telling them to eat more fruit and veg and less cakes and biscuits is, again, not very insightful nor helpful. Especially when we consider the above influences.
Eating for weight loss can lead people down a path of faddy diets, a poor relationship with food and no real understanding of how to eat well. Eating for health is where we need to focus and weight loss will be a bi-product. How do we learn to eat for health?
Start focusing on grass roots education
We need to educate. Understanding how food plays into our health will empower people to make better choices. To look past the marketing and choose more vegetables over white pasta, you need to know ‘why’.
Sugar and salt tax is something I support but you can’t increase prices without providing guidance on how people change their current choices. For some it might be obvious but for a country with an obesity epidemic it clearly isn’t for all. That isn’t the individuals fault. Our education system doesn’t currently hold space for nutrition lessons. From the discussions I’ve had with my son, and others, regarding Food Technology class, it’s less than supportive if we’re really going to move the dial. If knowledge is power, let’s provide it.
This is a key element of being a Nutritional Therapist and a part of the role I really love. It is also one of the reasons I don’t provide meal plans stating what to eat and when – it doesn’t teach you and it doesn’t empower you. I provide clients with guidance on food choices to make, quantities to aim for, tips on how to make changes and recipes for inspiration. So where ever they are – at home, in a restaurant, on holiday – they are making educated, empowered choices. They are not attached to a plan, non the wiser as to why.
And the rest…
Yes, there’s still more to it. Other considerations, in order for everyone to benefit, include improving the food offered in public services; especially hospitals and care homes but not forgetting large venues, sporting centres and cinemas. Integrative community support providing cooking skills, education and guidance on how to eat well on a budget. Reinforcing body confidence and emotional support for anyone with disordered eating or an eating disorder. And adequate breaks in workplaces to give people time to move their bodies and enjoy quality food without rushing.
However, we’ve had health strategies and recommendations presented before so the real question is, will the government listen and take action?
Let’s hope so.