In light of obesity becoming more widespread, especially amongst those living in poverty, the government needs to recognise that obesity is a social problem, not an individual one.
Recently, the King’s Fund released a report on obesity in the UK which said that obesity is fast becoming “a disease of England’s poorest people”. They show that the rates of obesity-related hospital admissions in the most deprived areas of England are 2.4 times greater than in the least deprived areas. This is indicative of a myriad of inequalities in society, including inequalities in health, housing, and employment. However, from the government’s side, the issue is framed more as something that individuals are responsible for, rather than a social problem stemming from poverty and disparities.
The current government policies made to combat obesity include requiring restaurants to display the number of calories in each dish, sugar reduction in the products that children consume the most, and encouraging people to do more physical activity and to join weight loss schemes — which are often expensive and time-consuming. However, these policies are simplistic and fail to address the root problems of poverty and inequality. Instead, the policies both come off as condescending and do not fit the reality of those living in poverty, which make them symptomatic of the tendency of the government to throw policies at a problem without tackling the actual problem. Additionally, they fail to recognise the diversity of weight-related issues in society, and the policies can be really harmful to those suffering from eating disorders.
Telling a single parent of several children — with single parents being more likely to live in poverty — who is working long hours, and who may even be starving themselves in order to feed their children, that they should give their children healthier food and that they need to exercise will do nothing to help, and borders on absurd. Jennie, a single mother of three sons in Redbridge, says that she “would like to afford proper meals for [her] sons and [herself]”, a sentiment echoed by most parents living in poverty. They would also like to afford to pay for their children to join after school clubs where they could do sports, and live in areas with more green spaces, but they do not have the means to do so. The main problem is not lack of knowledge or lack of will — it is lack of money and lack of time. However, the government does not seem to recognise this, and, considering the wholly inadequate free lunch packages that were issued in January, which neither contained enough food, nor ingredients which could be used to make the type of healthy meals that they are encouraging parents to make for their children, they are not doing anything to shift the focus of the discussion on obesity from individuals to society.
It is also important to recognise that not all people who live in poverty are the same or have the same circumstances. There are young people, without children, who live in poverty, often because they are struggling to find work. There are pensioners who live in poverty because their pension is low and they do not have much or any money saved themselves. BAME communities also face particular challenges, and are more likely to live in poverty than British White people: nearly half of BAME households live in poverty, and 10% of adults from BAME backgrounds live in deep poverty. Part of the reason why they are more at risk of falling into poverty is the benefit cap and the two-child limit on child support, as well as a tendency for those from ethnic minorities to have lower wages. Not all of these groups will benefit from the same support and the same interventions.
A further issue faced by those from BAME communities is that they are more likely to suffer from comorbidities of obesity. For example, people of South Asian descent are six times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those of European descent, and three times more likely to develop cardiovascular disease. However, there is very little research on how and why this happens, and what can be done to prevent it. As such, White bias and racism also play into the issue of obesity and require specific policies and attention.
Obesity is a complex problem, where many factors come into play, and therefore requires a complex solution. There needs to be a recognition that not everyone who lives in poverty is the same and faces the same risks, and that obesity cannot be tackled without addressing deep-seated inequalities and poverty in society. Telling people to eat less sugar when they barely have food on the table is not going to help.
At JAN Trust we recognise the need to work with communities to help them solve problems they face, rather than take a top-down approach. It is due to our grassroots work with BAME women that we have been able to create the programmes we run, and we work continuously to make them even better and more adapted to the needs of the communities.