Communicating clear messages to tackle obesity seems to be getting harder. Witness May this year when the National Obesity Forum published a report which backed eating more fat. Dr Aseem Malhotra called for a change in message advocating: “eat fat to get slim, don’t fear fat, fat is your friend.” The result? Four Forum members resigned and the Royal Society for Public Health responded saying it was a “muddled manifesto of sweeping statements, generalisations and speculation.”
And what about government’s role?
The government’s childhood obesity strategy ignores one key message channel altogether – clamping down on marketing sugary drinks to children – which Public Health England and those on the National Obesity Alliance had advocated. Significant criticism has been levelled at the strategy and so the government has recently tried to wrestle back some control: cue last Friday’s front page of the Times with Jeremy Hunt’s call for restaurants to reduce sugar in puddings and cut portion sizes.
Reformulation – the jargon for cutting too much sugar, salt and fat from the food and drink we consume – no doubt has the potential to make a significant difference. If the food we buy is healthier to start with, we all win right? Seems logical. Some people will point out that puddings should be sweet – they are, after all, desserts or sweets.
Substance not size
Jeremy Hunt also called for smaller portion sizes. Whilst it seems rational that a smaller slice of chocolate cake will do you less harm than a bigger slice, is smaller size the right message? I remember speaking about this (over a good lunch of course) with a former client, Professor Jean Pierre Despres. He told me, it’s what you eat and the quality of the food on your plate that are more important, rather than portion sizes.
Genetics and obesity
Last week I listened to a different professor, John Wass, speak on obesity to a packed lecture theatre at the Royal College of Physicians. Prof Wass spoke about the data that suggest that a surprisingly high proportion of us may be genetically pre-disposed to being overweight. If your mother and father are obese, there’s a fair chance you will be too. But aren’t lots of us quite fatalistic about healthcare: if the message is obesity can be genetic, isn’t there a risk that too many of us will simply accept the situation and give up trying to lose weight. So communicators trying to get helpful information to the public will be more interested in another study which highlighted that despite a genetic predisposition to obesity, a healthy lifestyle including physical activity can lead to weight loss: most of us (but not all) can do something about our weight.
But there are solutions
Thankfully there are solutions for obesity. This is the message that we as communicators need to be pressing home. And there’s good reason to push – obesity is a financial headache for the NHS and it is now being linked with certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and many more conditions no one wants. For most of us the solutions will revolve around what we eat; drinking more water and fewer SSBs; and how much exercise we can cram into our daily routine. For some people bariatric surgery is an effective option (more so than drugs apparently at the moment by a ratio of 3:1).
A whopping 66,159 academic articles have been published on obesity in the last ten years and the messaging on this issue is, at very best, fragmented. With so much scientific debate and disagreement, comms professionals have a leading role to play to ensure a consistent message to the public that can be understood and encourages action.
Here are my top tips for communications on obesity.
- Stay positive and focus on the solutions people can take
- Make use of the science that says it’s what you eat, drink and how much you move
- Encourage measurement – particularly waist size and BMI
- Strike innovative partnerships to tap into different audiences
- Use a carrot, not a stick
- And repeat. Again and again as obesity is possibly the biggest threat to our individual health and public finances. And surely one of the easiest to tackle.
James Ford, Partner, Barley Communications