The UK is getting fatter – 63 per cent of adults are overweight or obese and this number is going up every year. The result is a public health crisis. Excess weight increases our risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and even critical illness from COVID-19. This increased risk is unfairly distributed, with the most deprived populations hit hardest, and the UK is not alone in facing this crisis.
Fundamentally, obesity is on the rise because most of us consume more energy from food than we burn through exercise. The narrative around obesity often assumes that people make a conscious choice to overeat and not exercise. However, the majority of us want to be healthier and many of us know how to be healthier.
The problem is that many of our choices are not conscious, deliberate decisions but instinctive responses to our environment. Our food environment has undergone a rapid transformation – it is now incredibly easy to access tasty, but unhealthy, food. Unhealthy food is also widely advertised and promoted, nudging us towards consuming excess calories. Add to this the stress and time pressures of modern life and it’s no surprise that making healthy choices has become particularly difficult. In short, willpower is no match for the modern obesogenic food environment.
To tackle obesity, we need to create a food environment that is designed with human behaviour in mind. Behavioural insights can help, as illustrated below, by ensuring the food we eat is healthier, our food environment is designed to make the healthy choice easier, and policy is designed to not only impact the individual but drive universal shifts in our food environment. Such measures will make it easier for everyone to live healthy lives.