The British government is determined to force its people to lose weight and wants this to happen fast.
“Obesity is one of the greatest long-term health challenges that we face as a country. It not only puts a strain on our National Health Service and care system, but it also piles pressure on our bodies, making us more vulnerable to many diseases, including, of course, coronavirus,” says British Health Secretary Matthew Hancock, who unveiled this week a slew of measures intended to “help people make healthier choices” in the food they consume.
But the measures are already under attack from opposition politicians who dismiss the initiative as merely intended to deflect attention from the government’s own record in managing health crises, and from leaders in the food industry who complain that the new regulations are too costly.
An analysis by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development released at the end of last year, just before the coronavirus pandemic, found that Britain is the second-fattest nation in Europe, with almost a third of the population classified as overweight.
The report also claims that, as a result, Britons now live, on average, 2.7 years less compared with their European peers.
More alarmingly still, obesity among schoolchildren is on the rise, notwithstanding the fact that menus in all schools have long been subject to careful nutritional assessment.
But it was the coronavirus crisis that dramatically illustrated the dangers of being overweight, for the latest statistics indicate that the risks of dying from the virus increase by at least 25 per cent if the affected person is overweight.
“This deadly virus has given us a wake-up call about the need to tackle the stark inequalities in our nation’s health, and obesity is an urgent example of this,” says Mr Hancock.
The government has already pioneered efforts to reduce sugar consumption by imposing higher taxes on sugary drinks and snacks.
These are now likely to be reinforced by the introduction of further restrictions on unhealthy foods.
A ban will be introduced on advertising food high in salt, processed fats or sugar before the 9pm threshold on TV, to prevent manufacturers of unhealthy products from reaching children.
Supermarkets will also be prevented from making “buy one, get one free” offers on items deemed unhealthy, and will be told not to cluster sweets and other sugary snacks around checkout counters to discourage impulse buying.
And big restaurant chains and takeaway food outlets with more than 250 employees will have to print on their menus the calorie content of all the items they sell.
“Our whole principle is to support people to make the healthiest choices for themselves and their families,” says Mr Hancock.
However, restaurant chains that were badly hit by the coronavirus pandemic are already complaining that the requirements for calorie labelling impose extra costs.
And owners of pubs – which offer both drinks and food – claim that their businesses should not carry the financial burden of tackling Britain’s obesity problem.
The British Beer and Pub Association says that the measures would be “prohibitively expensive” and that “making calorie labelling mandatory for all beer is unnecessary and burdensome”.
Dietitians are also divided about the usefulness of TV bans on advertising.
Studies by Cancer Research UK, a charity, found that almost two-thirds of food advertisements shown on Britain’s top TV channels were for products high in fat, sugar and salt, and targeted time slots most likely to be viewed by children.
But children are more likely to be influenced today by social media and the behaviour of role models, meaning that restrictions on TV advertising are less meaningful.
And opposition politicians point out that government plans do not address more fundamental problems of poverty and social exclusion, which also result in poor diets.
Still, the measures are likely to be implemented because they enjoy strong support from Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Mr Johnson came to office dismissing the very idea of government intervention over what the public should eat as “nanny statism”.
But the British premier had a conversion after his own experience with Covid-19; his life was in danger and he had to be treated in intensive care, largely because he was overweight.
As a result, Mr Johnson is now an enthusiastic convert. “Losing weight is hard, but with some small changes we can all feel fitter and healthier,” he told the nation.
And for good measure, he posted a video of himself, taking an energetic walk with his dog, to prove the virtues of healthy living.