Last Word


Time for a change

Source: NHE Jan/Fen 16

Professor David Haslam, chair of the National Obesity Forum, says lifestyle changes are vital as the cost to our society of obesity continues to rise.

When someone as eminent as Dame Sally Davies equates obesity to terrorism as a threat to the UK, it’s time to sit up and listen. 

Strong words? Absolutely. But Simon Stevens has already argued obesity is the new smoking, in his Five Year Forward View for the NHS. The Health Select Committee, National Obesity Forum, Action on Sugar and Royal College of Physicians have all issued similar warnings. We can’t afford to ignore this latest call for action. 

The NHS is itself perilously close to the intensive care ward. Demands on resources grow year-on-year, and weight is a substantial contributor. We see the prevalence of obesity and overweight children in our schools through the National Child Measurement Programme. Patients turn up in primary and acute care settings showing the cost of a lack of physical activity and diets dominated by poor-quality foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats. As clinicians we see patients with cardiovascular and respiratory issues, diabetes and musculoskeletal problems that are all consequence of weight and lifestyle. All of which further increase the demands on the health service. 

So what needs to happen? The solution is two-fold. Yes, we need clearly established and easily accessible treatment pathways for patients with weight management issues. This means educating primary care professionals about the specialist services in their areas, and ensuring provision across the country. 

It also means engendering long-term lifestyle changes, and encouraging the public to make manageable lifestyle changes that will improve their long-term health outcomes and those of their families. That applies to everyone – from parents-to-be, to children in schools, to families sitting in front of the TV or doing their weekly shop. 

Making the UK healthier 

The need to engage the public as a whole is why we changed the name of National Obesity Awareness Week to JanUary for 2016. Because it’s about everyone doing something proactive – whether that’s an individual, family or business owner thinking about how to support employees, or food and drink manufacturers, or government ministers wrestling with the demands on the health service. 

There are a lot of ways the UK can be healthier. We can push forward with the reformulation of products and address advertising that puts ‘junk’ foods in front of our children. We need to seriously consider the tax on sugary drinks that’s been advocated by Public Health England and the Health Select Committee. And at a clinical level, we can proactively train GPs and other healthcare professionals to discuss weight with their patients and make the necessary recommendations and referrals for support. 

We can also help engender lifestyle changes among individuals and families. The mistake many people make is to take on too much too quickly. In the most serious medical cases, that might be the only route. But for most of us, a fundamental change in our lifestyles can quickly become tiresome and difficult to sustain. 

What you can do 

I encourage you to take two challenges – and to encourage your friends, family, colleagues and patients to do the same. 

The first thing you can do is join us in a sugars reduction challenge. Just as Change4Life highlights the ‘swaps’ we can all make, we’ve identified some simple substitutions you can make in the short and hopefully longer-term. These changes will reduce the amount of sugars you consume. So try them. Measure them. And work out what changing fruit juice for whole fruit, or frosted cereal for porridge means for you, friends, family and patients, over the course of a day, week, month or year. 

The second thing you can do is commit to a lifestyle change you will be able to stick to for 2016. The more people do this and reduce their sugars consumption, the better the health of the nation will be. And, over time, this will translate to lower demands on the NHS, if the UK is that bit healthier. 

Just as we couldn’t ignore the warnings of Simon Stevens in late 2014 or those since, we cannot and must not ignore the warnings of Dame Sally Davies now. For the health of the NHS, ourselves and our children, now is the time for action. We’re at a tipping point. And it’s incumbent on all of us to address one of the great social and public health problems of our time.



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