On Sunday I had the opportunity to sit in the audience of the BBC 1’s Big Questions debate. They were filming in Cardiff and one of the topics to be discussed was the government’s proposal to tax unhealthy foods in an attempt to curb the obesity crisis. I did eventually have the chance to join the debate but only very briefly and I had so much more to say! I have therefore decided to write this week’s blog about the ‘fat tax’ and how I think it would affect the eating habits of the UK.
This is a topic that I am very passionate about and I was certainly looking forward to hearing what others had to say about the matter!
Obesity and how to solve this problem is a frequently debated topic at the moment. One quarter of adults in the UK and one third of adults in Wales are now clinically obese. It is said that one third of British children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, and children are now 10kg heavier than they were ten years ago.
It is therefore clear that we need to do something to urgently solve this growing problem. However is introducing a so called ‘fat tax’ and therefore making junk and processed foods more expensive really going to change what goes into our shopping trolley?
Firstly I would like to begin by clarifying that it’s not fat but sugar among other things that are making us overweight. The misconception that all fat is bad for us is in my opinion one of the main reasons that we are facing an obesity crisis. So why are we obsessed with Fat=Fat?
In the early 1950s a scientist by the name of Ancel Keys published a paper called ‘The Seven Countries Study’. The paper showed that there was a strong connection between high fat intake and heart disease. However Keys originally started the study with 22 countries and many of these countries had a high fat intake and low levels of heart disease. If Keys had used all this information the conclusion would have been that there was no connection between fat intake and cardiovascular disease.
To cut a long story short the US government took this study on board and over the years we have become obsessed with cutting fat out of our diets in an attempt to keep ourselves healthy and slim. There was no consideration for the fact that the Mediterranean diet consists of many high fat foods and that these countries were far healthier than the US. Billions of people all over the world now follow low fat and fat free diets in an attempt to lose weight without realising that good fats are in fact an essential part of our diet.
The food manufacturers have therefore made billions of pounds over the last couple of decades selling foods that are either low fat or fat free. Once fat has been removed from food it is normally replaced by sugar, sweeteners and other additives which are highly addictive. This in my opinion is where the problem lies, supermarkets these days are full of products that contain huge quantities of sugar and high fructose corn syrup whilst marketed as being healthy. If we therefore talk about a tax on unhealthy foods then it needs to be on foods that contain added sugar and other sweeteners rather than on high fat foods which can be healthy and are an essential part of our diet.
My first concern with this proposal is that we are going to be taxing foods that are highly addictive. If somebody is consuming 5 cans of Coca Cola a day, then I don’t think a small rise in cost will help them change their behaviour. I would be worried that people will therefore be left with less money in their pockets and may spend therefore less on other healthy foods.
I know that many people have argued that it’s the poor that would be left out of pocket in this instance. Although I do agree that obesity rates are higher in this group of people I want to point out that I think this is absolutely a nationwide rather than a class problem and it’s something that affects us all.
I am worried that the tax raised would go towards paying for the obesity crisis. I would prefer to see the government firstly take measures to try and reduce the problem. There are three main actions that I would like to see the government take, the first would be education, the second would be to change their own nutritional advice and the third would be to place strict regulations on the food manufacturers, what they include in their product, how they label and how they advertise and market their products.
Education is a must, I work as a personal trainer and I also run a boot camp called Smash the Fat. Many of my clients have been dieting for five, ten, fifteen years. When I speak to them about nutrition I realise that they are mainly confused about what’s good and bad. They have been bombarded with conflicting ideas from the media for years and they have followed many fad diets without any long term success. These are intelligent women but when it comes to nutrition they are really uneducated about how best to fuel their bodies. I don’t however blame these people, I think unless you have studied nutrition or read a lot about it, it’s really difficult to know what to believe. The government need to look into educating both kids and parents so that the next generation are confident about what they should be eating and how to prepare and cook it. Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated but lack of education is preventing so many of us from being able to lead a healthy lifestyle.
This brings me to the next point, the governments advice on nutrition is in my opinion incorrect, if you look at the ‘eat well plate’ (the governments example of a healthy/balanced diet) one third of it is made up of ‘healthy wholegrains’ and starchy carbohydrates which is another of the main reasons so many people are battling with weight problems, diabetes and other modern diseases such as IBS. Also 8% of the ‘eat well plate’ is made up of junk food, cakes, crisps, biscuits!!! Should we really be encouraging people to include these foods as part of a balanced diet? This needs to be changed.
The government need to strictly regulate the food industry. Obesity in children is of particular concern and if we don’t do anything about this then the number of people suffering from type 2 diabetes and other preventable diseases is going to sky rocket over the next few years.
The government need to ban advertising of junk food to children, they need to stop companies like McDonalds from sponsoring sporting events like the Olympics and children’s films.
We also need to look at food labelling, the reason so many of us are confused about what’s good and bad is that we are so misguided by the food manufacturers. All processed foods should be labelled with a warning similar to that found on a cigarette packet. The problem is at the moment if something contains half a carrot it’s labelled as being ‘one of your five a day’ and therefore presumed healthy regardless of the fact that it’s also full of sugar and other ingredients we can’t even pronounce. The traffic light system needs to be changed, healthy foods like mackerel are labelled unhealthy due to the high fat content – it’s no wonder we are all so confused!
We need to educate people so that they realise that if something is processed then it’s likely to be unhealthy. People need to realise that unless they can see the ingredients then there is no guarantee of what they are consuming, hopefully the horse meat scandal this week will get people thinking further about what’s in their food. We need to get people back to cooking and eating real food, fish, meat, veg and fruit.
Although I am cynical about the ‘fat tax’ it could have some benefits if done properly, I think that there would need to be a huge increase in the cost of these products a small increase wouldn’t encourage a change in behaviour. I would also like to see the money going towards subsidising healthy foods so that people have an extra incentive to buy these products. If we went along with the tax it would need to coincide with correct labelling, a ban on advertising and education as discussed above – if we don’t do this then we are unlikely to change behaviour in the long term.
The tax was recently introduced in Denmark and many other countries are thinking of introducing a similar tax. Denmark has now decided to pull the tax after just 5 months. The tax was criticized for increasing prices for consumers, increasing companies’ administrative costs and putting Danish jobs at risk. They found that people were simply driving over the border to stock up on junk food and it is thought that the tax was just too high and therefore was having a big impact on the food manufacturers. Although it’s good to look at how things work in other countries I’m not sure that 5 months is long enough to notice any large changes in behaviour. Also Denmark’s obesity problems are significantly less than ours and they are by comparison a relatively healthy country. It may not be a good idea to therefore base our decision on this example although we can certainly take some ideas from it.
One subject that was discussed on the show was that of ‘fat bashing’. I agree that the media play a really crucial part in this, we are constantly bombarded with pictures of overweight celebrities in their bikinis for example. I do understand that many people are overweight due to emotional reasons, food is after all the most socially acceptable drug and so many people suffer with this addiction and eat to make themselves feel better. I strongly believe that any conversations about weight need to be focused on health rather than vanity. I think there need to be stricter regulations on what magazines and newspapers print and we need to promote healthy, strong body images to young boys and girls.
I do however want to make a point that discussing ways to tackle obesity is done with only good intentions. Obesity does have several health implications and we absolutely have to do something about this before it gets even more out of hand. Just like alcohol and drug addiction there needs to be support out there for people who struggle with emotional eating problems as advice alone may not be enough to help these people.
Having thought about all the pros and cons I would like to see the government firstly make major changes to the way food is produced, labelled and sold. We also need to change the nutritional advice and improve nutritional education in schools. Only once all of this is in place would I perhaps consider placing a higher tax on sugary foods so that the money raised could go towards subsidising healthy foods.