We know that solving the obesity crisis isn’t as simple as encouraging families to ban fatty foods and start exercising more- if it were that easy we’d all be ‘beach body ready’ (terrible concept) down in Barrybados building sand castles and topping up our tans.
No. Sadly we know all to well that this isn’t the case. There are much broader and more complex issues at hand. Issues we have been discussing for a long time and in many cases issues we now have solid solutions for- if only our politicians would implement them.
And it seems that this disconnect between the idea to do something and then delivering it in planning or policy isn’t new. We see it all of the time. We declare we want reduce transport emissions, promote modal shift and reduce obesity rates and then in the next breath announce a new fast food drive through restaurant 500yds from a local primary school (actual example- not going to name and shame).
For me the lack of action in these areas rests on our inability to take a more holistic approach to tackling some of the most regrettable and avoidable issues we still face today.
Even as the UK government announces its plan to tackle obesity we see that typical disconnect with other policy areas as the plan to shrink our nations waistlines goes head to head with half price fast food meals as part of the £30billion plan to reboot the hospitality industry. Those benefitting most from the scheme will be some of Britain’s favourite fast food restaurants, bringing more calories than benefits to the local economy, outpricing and outperforming local independents who have far less resources and support.
Making the most of our mechanisms
What makes it more frustrating here in Wales is that we have the tools and the thirst for the kind of change we need to see. We have a Future Generations Act that demands more sustainable decision making that puts national wellness at the heart of policy making. We have the foundational economy that is challenging how we invest in and develop our local economies; empowering the people of that community in the process. We’ve declared a climate emergency, created a youth parliament, introduced an active travel act and have a clean air act on the way. These are no small victories, but they remain empty vessels if we do not fully embrace the ideas, the people and the desired outcomes that brought them into fruition in the first place.
For me there are 3 key actions we need to take to tackle obesity along with the wider determinant that influence it.
20-minute towns and Cities
First, we need to introduce 20 minute towns and cities. Plan places for people and not the cars they’ve come to depend upon. If everything we needed was within a 20 minutes’ walk, cycle, bus ride or train journey, it would be easier to free ourselves from the sedentary car journey. There is so much to discover and do as we actively travel from A-B, these are opportunities we miss out on in our solitary vehicles sat bumper to bumper in traffic.
20-minute cities will enable everyone to get around easier, build more spaces for communities to thrive and create more opportunities for the local economy to flourish. When we say ‘I live locally’ let’s really mean it- especially in a post-covid world that promises to challenge the binary choice between working from home or working in the office; reminding us that we’ve always been able to work anywhere. Just think about what we could do with all that saved commuting time- we could exercise, learn new skills, do sports or spend time learning to cook new, healthier dishes. Time really does create opportunity- and 20-minute towns and cities will give us both time and opportunity.
Universal Basic Income
Secondly, UBI will provide the financial resilience for families to make healthier smarter choices when it comes to buying food and spending locally. And please, don’t confuse that with the assumption that those who are less affluent don’t want to make healthy choice, it’s part of the recognition that prolonged stress linked to financial insecurity is proven to impact a person’s ability to make choices with long term benefits; instead relying on short term thinking to solve immediate worries. With this decreased mental bandwidth, the seemingly more affordable £1 bag of deep fry chips scan seem an easier solution than the bag of potatoes that will provide double the serving of potato.
Finally, another way to increase mental bandwidth, improve well-being more broadly and consequently reduce obesity levels would be to put well-being at the centre of our society. By measuring our success not on what we produce but on the happiness and wellness we foster in our people, we can create a culture that puts health before wealth. We can both work and live happily rather than working to live or indeed living for work. By prioritising well-being we can find more balance in our lives and more balance in our diets.
The prioritisation of well-being will also foster the more holistic approach to health that I called for at the beginning of this blog. We are far beyond the days where health was solely the burden of our National Health Service. We know that the decisions we make about the economy and housing, environment and education, and indeed any policy decision will have a profound effect on our well-being and the well-being of future generations.
How do we achieve this?
Now is the time to stop talking about doing these things and deliver them. And you’re probably thinking at this point- well Huw you’ve not really talked about any direct actions to tackle obesity? And you would be right. The time for one dimensional thinking is over, we cannot keep looking at and tackling issues as if they are the only problem we’re dealing with. Its time use the levers we’ve created to turn the ideas we’ve had into a reality. We can combine the goals set out in Healthy Weight, Healthy Wales to fill the gaps in some of the recent Anti-Obesity strategy and tackle not just this issue, but the broad range of issues that surround it. We can create a more resilient, mobile and healthier nation that is bursting with opportunity. Perhaps then we can stop our last minute attempts to get ‘beach body ready’, and instead live more sustainable, healthier lifestyles; where Barrybados (or your local leisure time equivalent) needn’t be banished to the weekend but part of your way of life.