As public policy steps up efforts to tackle obesity, it’s time to focus on solutions

Posted On: 18th March 2021

As part of World Obesity Day, on 4th March, a variety of organisations and decision-makers across Europe talked about their increased efforts to tackle obesity.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC), the European Commission’s science and knowledge centre, launched a dedicated obesity section on its Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway website. The service provides facts and figures as well as policy guidelines on the prevention of obesity and related illnesses. Commenting on the initiative, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, Mariya Gabriel, argued that the scientific data gathered by the JRC will significantly contribute to finding the best measures to tackle obesity.

Also this week, a number of prominent MEPs – Marc Tarabella, Alex Agius Saliba and João Ferreira – raised awareness of the increasing prevalence of obesity in Europe in Parliament Magazine. MEP Ferreira stressed that prevention strategies are not enough, and that there is an urgent need to help the millions of people that already struggle with being obese or overweight.

Meanwhile, the UK Government announced new specialised support to help those living with obesity to lose weight. The Government will allocate a £100 million budget to help children, adults and families to achieve and maintain a healthier weight.

The Government of Ireland also announced a concerted approach by the Department of Health, the Health Service Executive and Health Research Board to obesity prevention and care for people living with overweight or obesity. This new way forward includes community-based programmes and health interventions in areas of socio-economic deprivation and enhanced community care resources, including the recruitment of additional dietitians for weight management and chronic disease management across the country. The Minister of Health, Stephen Donnelly, stressed that obesity negatively impacts many other conditions, including type 2 diabetes, some forms of cancer and COVID-19. The Minister also acknowledged that the solution to obesity is possible only through a more coordinated approach.

All these announcements point to an increased awareness of the need to tackle obesity, and to do so urgently. But this issue has been on the political agenda of Europe for many years now and obesity rates are not only rising but have tripled in many European countries.

The first set of facts and figures published by the JRC on World Obesity Day were shocking, showing that more than half a million deaths each year in the EU can be attributed to a higher than ideal body mass index (BMI) and that 59% of adults were estimated to have pre-obesity and obesity in 2016. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates that in the next three decades overweight will claim as many as 92 million lives in the OECD area, and, that the total health expenditure attributed to overweight will correspond to 8.4% of the entire health budget of OECD countries between now and 2050.

The developments on the policy level are certainly positive news. But policy makers across Europe need to take a step forward to actively tackle the obesity challenge; Moving beyond policies that aim to bring superficial behavioural changes among consumers, European governments need to boost cooperation among public policy, the scientific world and the business sector, and look at  options that are already available to support millions of citizens who live with obesity and overweight – as well as related conditions.

The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK has set an example, by introducing a programme which provides a formula-based low calorie, total diet replacement programme for overweight and obese people with type-2 diabetes. The rollout of this programme was based on the results of two large studies, namely, DiRECT and DROPLET, which showed the efficacy of total diet replacements in improving diabetes control, reducing medication and, in some cases, putting type-2 diabetes into remission. Total diet replacement (TDR) and meal replacement products (MRP) are safe, effective and cost-effective. They comply with applicable legislation and have a proven track record of helping people lose weight and subsequently maintain their weight loss. Given Europe’s obesity pandemic, it is absolutely essential that health professionals and policy makers gain a better understanding of the relevance, role and application of TDRs and MRPs.

The current research on obesity has shown that, firstly, obesity is a complex issue associated with decreased life expectancy and other serious health issues. Secondly, obesity is a public health problem that affects European society and its economy. And finally, the increasing prevalence of obesity shows that prevention strategies are not enough; rather there is an urgent need for combining the latter with treatment solutions now. This will only be possible through coordinated action, bringing together expertise from the scientific, business and policy sector.