Magoosh GRE

What, in your opinion, are the causes of the obesity ‘epidemic’ in the UK?

| November 1, 2012 | 1 Comment

The NHS defines obesity as a condition in which a patient’s BMI (Body Mass Index) is calculated to be over 30. In the last three decades obesity in the UK has reached epidemic proportions, rising from under 8% of the population in 1980, to 25% in 2012. The cause of the condition is understood to be a combination of excess food energy intake and lack of physical exercise. This simplistic understanding however cannot explain the meteoric rise in obesity levels in Britain. The larger issues behind the dramatic change in British eating patterns must be examined in order to better define the causes of the obesity epidemic. This essay argues that the obesity epidemic in the UK has been influenced by social, economic, and politic factors, notably the role of globalization and changing business models in altering the British diet, increasing disparity in wealth distribution, and wholly ineffective preventative policies put in place by the government.

The years following the Second World War were a time of economic growth and expansion in the UK, and with the spectre of wartime rations banished, consumption levels increased dramatically as the British public were free to spend their money on cheap, newly available imported foods (Hamlett et al 2008:3). This led to the emergence of the institution of the supermarket, which has come to dominate the grocery retail market in the UK (currently 75% of the market is owned by four transnational corporations). As the retail power of the supermarket grew, so too did its profits, built largely on the back of retailing high value goods. These good were initially own-brand products, which appealed to the consumer because they were cheaper than the branded alternative, but as the years wore on they began to lead the market in the production and retail of new, high value food products like chilled ready meals, convenience foods, soft drinks and snacks (Burch & Lawrence 2005:2).

This shift saw a dramatic increase in the consumption of these foods in the UK. The breakfast cereal for example, was worth £1.27 billion to the UK economy in 2005 (Lawrence 2008:20), rising from virtually nothing fifty years previously. Processed foods, such as breakfast cereals, typically contained high amounts of sugar and or fat and salt, and an their increased consumption is generally correlated with increased obesity levels. As the UK market for these products increased throughout the 70’s and 80’s so too did levels of obesity and the epidemic began to take hold.

In addition to facilitating a shift in nutrition across Britain, the success of large supermarkets also had other effects upon the shopping and eating habits of the public, which have contributed to the obesity epidemic. A shift in shopping patterns emerged, in which grocery retails outlets were shifted to out of town locations, resulting in the creation of so-called ‘food deserts’, poverty-stricken neighbourhoods with very limited access to healthy fruit and veg shops (Wrigley 2002:2031). This exacerbated the already understood paradigm that diet, nutrition and health are very much linked to socioeconomic status, and that simple issues such as access to healthy food have become a serious consideration for some sections of society. The obesity crisis that has taken off in the last thirty years directly mirrors increasing social inequalities up and down the country. This link was in fact highlighted in the Acheson Report, which was one of the first government commissioned reports to describe the connection between poor diet and health and socioeconomic status (Acheson Report 1998).

This connection, as highlighted in the Acheson report, is representative of some of the wider causes underpinning the obesity epidemic in the UK. It shows how diet cannot be considered entirely a personal choice, because it is so directly influenced by factors like social status, access, age, gender, income etc. (Atree 2006:69) This consideration explains why the policies put in place by British governments, from New Labour right up to the current coalition, have not been effective in tackling the issue of obesity, because the policies put in place largely fall under the theme of providing a better education for consumers to make healthy choices. The fact that the healthy choice is demonstrably not available for a significant amount of people highlights the fallacies of these policies, and explains why they have failed to curb the rise of the obesity epidemic.

When New Labour came to office in 1997 they faced a challenging situation in the area of Food and Agricultural policy. Successive crises in British farming (salmonella in eggs, BSE etc) had left the public skeptical about British produce and the rapid rise of obesity over the preceding two decades was a growing national concern. Policies were drawn up to not only improve the image of British agriculture, but also to improve the diet of the British public. These policies included national fruit schemes, which entitled school children to a piece of fruit every day, welfare food schemes, and perhaps most famously, the ‘5 a day’ campaign in which the public were encouraged to consume at least five portions of fruit and veg a day (Jebb 2012:1). Organizations both governmental (Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and non-ministerial (Food Standards Agency) were set up in 2001, with a view to improve both the quality of food produced in the UK, and the quality of the public diet.

The failures of these policies have significantly contributed to the epidemic of obesity currently gripping the UK. Firstly, the plans have been heavily criticized for being prompted by fear and backlash, rather than the clear conviction about the benefits of a healthy diet (Barling/Lag 2003:9). Secondly, these policies do not address underlying structural issues; there are no policies to tackle the issues of food access and food poverty. Thirdly, they all aim to engage the general public in choosing a healthier diet, but the fact remains that direct choice may only play a minor role in the diets that various echelons of society have. This of course severely limits how effective such policies can be. Since 2001 the British government has spent £9m on funding the ‘5-a-day’ campaign and not only has the campaign failed (average fruit and veg intake has fallen), but the slogan has been hijacked by the food industry, which uses it to sell convenience foods which have sugar, fat and salt contents so high that the benefits of containing a portion of fruit and veg are entirely negated (Moore 2012).

The origin of the obesity epidemic in Britain is complicated to understand because not only are diets complicated and multidimensional things, policies on food are also multilayered and cut across departmental boundaries. However, it can be said that globalized market forces have played their role in altering the British diet, increasing levels of poverty in some areas have also taken their toll, and the response from the British Government over the last decade has been woefully misguided and inadequate.




D Acheson (1998) Independent inquiry into inequalities in health. Publication, policy and guidance. Department of Health

P Atree (2006) A critical analysis of UK public health policies in relation to diet and nutrition in low income households. Maternal & Child Nutrition 2 2 67-78

D Barling & T Lang (2003) A reluctant food policy? The first five years of food policy under labour. The Political Quarterly 74 1 8-18

D Burch & G Lawrence (2005) Supermarkets own brands, supply chains and the transformation of the agrifood system. International Journal of Sociology of Agriculture and Food 13 1 1-28

J Hamlett et al (2008) Regulating UK supermarkets; an oral history perspective. History and Policy The Exeter Research and Institutional Content Archive

S Jebb (2012) A system wide challenge for UK food policy. BMJ 344 E3414

F Lawrence (2008) Eat your heart out: Why the food business is bad for the planet and your health. Penguin Group

J Moore (2012) Myths about your five a day. (Accessed 11/9/2012)

N Wrigley (2002) Food deserts in British cities: Policy context and research priorities. Urban Studies 39 2029-2040

Category: Essay & Dissertation Samples, Health Essay Examples

Ask a question about this article

You must be logged in to post a comment.