Michelle Lowe contested Coventry South at the General Election last year and is the former Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Housing & Health at Sevenoaks District Council.
Governments for decades have planned to fight obesity and help the nation lose weight with schemes from the sugar tax to the Prime Ministers new plans to ban junk food advertising before 9pm, calorie counts on restaurant menus and GP’s prescribing Weight Watchers. These measures will probably make a difference, but in my experience as Deputy Leader of Sevenoaks District Council overseeing a health-in-all-policies approach to tackle obesity, this will only scratch the surface.
Most overweight people know the causes are poor diet and lack of exercise. They also know that eating better and exercising more will not only help them lose weight but will make them healthier – yet they do not take the difficult path to shed the extra pounds. To help them the government needs to understand the reasons why people choose unhealthy lifestyles and tackle the causes as well as the symptoms.
Obesity is linked to mental ill-health. People who feel anxious and/or depressed are unlikely to feel motivated to lose weight even if deep down they would like to. Tackling mental ill-health, something that may have been made worse by lockdown, will help to fight obesity. As well as prescribing Weight Watchers it might also be worth prescribing specialist, holistic weight loss schemes that also includes counselling, exercise and practical advice about debt.
You are probably wondering what debt has to do with obesity. In my experience quite a lot. Debt can lead to mental ill-health, which is linked to obesity, but it can also be linked to choices. People running out of electricity may choose not to cook a dinner and risk the kids not eating it – and buy them a filling bag of chips instead. People on lower incomes are less likely to buy fresh fruit and vegetables unless they live near a supermarket as they can’t risk it going rotten before it is eaten – buying crisps is a better bet.
Lifestyle also has a lot to do with obesity. People working fulltime do not always have time to cook healthy meals – it is often easier to throw unhealthy meals together quickly that the whole family will eat. There are some people that don’t know how to make a healthy meal as we have lost a lot of practical skills such as these over the generations. Busy people may not have time or the energy for extra exercise over and above what they do during the day, which means active travel needs to be incorporated into their daily routine. This is where local government comes in.
Local government is great at social prescribing. At its best, it understands its local area and population and can work with other agencies and charities to put together social prescribing programmes that meet local peoples’ needs. Mental health support and debt advice needs to be included in some weight loss programmes, in order to tackle the symptoms as well as the causes, and local councils should understand how this mix will work for their locality.
Councils can encourage people to take on allotments which will help them understand food better. It is a healthy outdoor activity in its own right – that can lead to healthier eating. This can be linked to educating children and their parents through schools and other outlets about how to make fast, healthy, cost-effective meals.
Councils are also the leisure authority and can link leisure centres, local tennis courts and other activities into social prescribing activities. They are also the planning authority and if they plan well can make sure walkways and cycling paths, secure places to lock bikes are included in new developments – and incorporated in existing ones where possible. They can also control the types of food outlets and vans through planning and licensing, and I also believe there is a bigger role for Environmental health in promoting healthier choices on menus when they inspect restaurants.
Taking a holistic approach to obesity and its causes with central government, local government, schools and the NHS working together to identify the causes and solutions in particular localities will yield longer term, sustainable results.