Obesity crisis fuelled by the high street as 5,809 takeaways open in just three-and-a-half years

Junk food is taking over our high streets with 5,809 new takeaways opening in just three and half years, experts have warned.

A major report by the Food Foundation think-tank says cheap, unhealthy food is driving Britain’s spiralling obesity crisis.

One in every four food retailers is now a takeaway, according to data analysed for the report by Cambridge University. 

Experts say some places are becoming ‘swamped in junk food’ – with fast food outlets making up almost 40 per cent of all food retailers in the worst-hit areas.

High streets are 'swamped with junk food', say experts as it is revealed a quarter of of retailers are takeaways

High streets are 'swamped with junk food', say experts as it is revealed a quarter of of retailers are takeaways

High streets are ‘swamped with junk food’, say experts as it is revealed a quarter of of retailers are takeaways

Between June 2014 and December 2017, the number of takeaways in England rose 11 per cent, from 52,120 to 57,929, Ordnance Survey data reveals.

The report – backed by campaigners, academics and celebrities, including Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall – calls for urgent and radical action to tackle the crisis.

A third of children and two-thirds of adults in Britain are now overweight, contributing to soaring rates of diabetes, heart disease and cancer. 

Writing in the Daily Mail today, Baroness Rosie Boycott, a trustee of the Food Foundation, says obesity is not simply a ‘failure of personal will’, but the consequence of a system in which ‘the odds are insurmountably stacked against us’.

The poorest 10 per cent of UK households would have to spend three-quarters of their disposable income on food to afford a ‘healthy diet’, as defined by the Government.

Blackburn, Hyndburn and South Ribble in Lancashire and Harlow in Essex have the highest concentration of takeaways, with close to four in ten of all food retailers selling junk food.

Dame Sally Davies, the Government's chief medical officer, said in December sugar targets had not been achieved

Dame Sally Davies, the Government's chief medical officer, said in December sugar targets had not been achieved

Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s chief medical officer, said in December sugar targets had not been achieved

Supermarkets are also geared towards selling fatty, sugary, salty products, with food defined as ‘healthy’ by the Food Standards Agency costing an average of £7.42 per 1,000 calories, compared to £2.42 for 1,000 calories of ‘less healthy’ food.

The report suggests subsidising fruit and vegetables for the poor, extending the soft drinks tax to other sugary foods, discounting business rates for companies selling healthy products, redirecting farming subsidies away from large dairy and livestock companies and towards fruit and vegetable growers, and tightening restrictions on junk food adverts.

Pressure is growing for tighter regulations on the food industry. Dame Sally Davies, the Government’s chief medical officer, admitted in December that a series of voluntary agreements had failed, warning: ‘Our sugar targets haven’t been met so far. The same with salt. We need to threaten them with mandation.’

Some areas are already taking matters into their own hands. A ban on all junk food advertising on London’s Tube and buses will be introduced on Monday. And the report’s authors urged others to follow suit, pointing out that 46 per cent of food advertising is for unhealthy food and soft drinks, while only 2.5 per cent promotes fruit and vegetables.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said action needs to be taken to ensure high-quality food is available to all

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said action needs to be taken to ensure high-quality food is available to all

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health, said action needs to be taken to ensure high-quality food is available to all

Shirley Cramer, of the Royal Society for Public Health, said: ‘Measures must be put in place to ensure that all areas of the UK have the same access to high-quality and affordable food.’

A Department of Health spokesman said: ‘With one in three children leaving primary school overweight or obese, we recognise the scale of the challenge and the urgent need to act.

That’s why we’ve introduced a world-leading childhood obesity plan and are working with local councils to help them better enforce their powers to create healthier environments – including planning policies to limit the opening of new hot food takeaways close to schools and in areas of over-concentration.’

Fatal failures to shame our government 

Rosie Boycott, Trustee of the Food Foundation, calls on the Government and food industry to join together to tackle a scandal that potentially has a fatal impact on all our lives…

Food presents the greatest health challenge of our time. Almost 20 per cent of deaths worldwide are attributable to unhealthy food choices and diet is the second highest risk factor for early death after smoking. But while people can quit smoking, food is more complex – everyone needs to eat.

In Britain, the system that has developed to feed us has evolved into a highly efficient, hi-tech, profitable and interconnected web of companies and organisations that allow us to put appealing food on our tables at low prices.

But we cannot deny the damage that the food system is doing to our health: what we eat is killing us.

Ten per cent of five-year-olds and 20 per cent of 11-year-olds are obese; 3.1million people in the UK are registered with diabetes (up from 2.4million in 2010), and amputations due to diabetes have gone up 25 per cent in the past eight years. These are diet-related illnesses – we are not eating food that is good for us.

But for four million children in the UK, a healthy diet – defined by the Government as five fruit or vegetables a day with meals to be based on starchy foods such as potatoes, some dairy, beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, etc – is unaffordable.

What’s more, the food environment in which we make choices about what we eat, especially by those in poor areas, is extremely unhealthy.

Sadly, the odds are insurmountably stacked against us.

Diet-related illness is not the result of a failure of personal will – for example, the inability to resist more chocolate – but a failure of political will. Successive governments have failed to shape a system in which we can choose for ourselves to protect our health rather than harm it.

Almost 20 per cent of deaths worldwide are attributable to unhealthy food choices 

Almost 20 per cent of deaths worldwide are attributable to unhealthy food choices 

Almost 20 per cent of deaths worldwide are attributable to unhealthy food choices 

Even when we step out of the front door and decide what to eat, we’re influenced by the mass media. Almost half (46 per cent) of all food and drink advertising is aimed at encouraging us to buy confectionery, snacks and soft drinks. By contrast, only 2.5 per cent of food and drink advertising spend goes on fruit and vegetables.

Data from the Broken Plate report by the Food Foundation think-tank – of which I am a trustee – shows that one in four places to buy food are fast food outlets. Indeed, unhealthy options are so much more readily available, carefully marketed to be more attractive, and are certainly more affordable.

We know that having easy access to profusions of takeaways and fast food shops is linked to the likelihood of being overweight or obese. We also know that deprived areas often have more of such outlets than richer neighbourhoods.

Another problem is that choices are swayed by the fact that unhealthy foods are, calorie for calorie, three times cheaper than healthy options.

We need systemic change on a massive scale but we won’t get this without vision from the Government. There must also be leadership from the food industry. Firms can no longer claim they’re simply catering to customer demand: they must play a crucial role in shaping that demand.

We urgently require measures to tip the balance in favour of healthy food. We need to stop marketing unhealthy food to children and channel that creative energy into healthy products. Our post-Brexit agriculture policy should include public funding for the marketing of fruit and vegetables.

As for fast food outlets and chain retailers, they must commit to offering healthier products. Redesigning VAT on food to favour healthier choices would help make better foods more affordable, as would ending price promotions on unhealthy products.

Already, a number of initiatives are leading the way. The Dutch supermarket chain Marqt, for example, became the country’s first to ban the marketing of unhealthy products to children. And this year, the Food Foundation launched Veg Power and ITV’s #EatThemToDefeatThem advertising campaign to get children eating more vegetables.

All this shows radical change is possible. But it’s up to law-makers, who have withdrawn from food policy, to take action. The Government and food industry must join together to tackle a scandal that potentially has a fatal impact on all our lives. 

 

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