Finger wagging won’t crack the obesity epidemic

19 February 2015

A leading cancer prevention charity is calling for smarter policies on obesity that don’t focus solely on individual behaviour change.

In a paper published in today’s Lancet (19 February 2015) Dr Corinna Hawkes, Head of Policy at World Cancer Research Fund International, says we need a ‘smarter’ approach to food policy that confronts the powerful role that preferences and habits play in creating people’s food choices.  

Around 61% of the UK population is overweight or obese and research by the charity has found strong links between obesity and nine cancers.

But despite better public awareness of the links between lifestyle and cancer the UK, in common with every other country in the world, is still failing to reverse its obesity epidemic.

Dr Hawkes’ paper points to a growing body of research into how children learn to like foods from influences in the world around them, including during their first 1,000 days. There is a growing understanding that food preferences can be stubborn and set the tone for longer-term food habits.

She said: "If I were to give one piece of advice to decision-makers looking for solutions to obesity, it would be: look at the evidence on young children.

"We know a lot more now about how food preferences are learned over time and their impact on eating habits.

"The future benefits to society of raising a generation for whom healthier food choices are the preferred choices, are huge. Kids who enjoy healthy eating when they are young have a better chance of keeping hold of those habits in later life. In turn they are likely to be a positive influence on others, including their own children."

Anti-obesity policies that don’t acknowledge the role that learned food preference plays are likely to be less effective. Measures like traffic light food labeling and increasing the availability of shops selling healthy foods in underserved neighborhoods, are likely to be much more effective if they are designed with the preferences and habits of consumers in mind.

A smarter approach to food policies focused on making healthier choice the preferred choice, is likely to pay off in the long term in lower obesity rates.

Dr Hawkes said: "It’s actually not rocket science, but it does require far greater understanding of existing food preferences, how they are formed and the roles of marketing, parents and peers in creating and influencing food choices.

"It also requires patience: creating a generation of unhealthy eaters took time. Undoing that legacy through smart food policies won’t happen overnight either."

For more information and to receive a copy of the research paper contact: Paul Hebden, Press and PR Manager, WCRF on 020 343 4273 / 07823 325009