The government has unveiled a new multi-pronged strategy designed to fight the spiralling levels of obesity in the UK and help the public lead healthier lives.

Backed by a fund of £372 million, the new plan aims to recruit employers, individuals and communities to help foster an environment that is friendlier towards healthier lifestyles, thereby improving the health of the nation and reducing the strain on health services.

The new strategy is based upon five central aims:

- Promoting children's health and development: plans include boosting physical activity and compulsory cooking at school to teach pupils about healthy foods, as well as a £75-million marketing campaign to prompt parents to better to their children’s diets and levels of exercise;

- Raising awareness of healthier food choices: by establishing a Healthy Food Code of Good Practice, with proposals for a uniform and user-friendly approach to food labelling, and making use of Local Authority planning powers to curb the spread of fast food outlets in areas such as close to schools or parks, amongst other things;

- Incorporating physical activity into everyday activity: via a £30-million investment in ‘Healthy Towns’, which look at how their infrastructure can help to promote physical activity, and a review of the country’s overall approach to physical activity;

- Creating incentives for better health: initiatives include stronger incentives for individuals, employers and the NHS to prioritise improving health, working with employers to investigate how companies can help achieve a healthy workforce, and exploration of the potential of using personal financial incentives to encourage healthy living; and

- Personalised advice and support: including the modification of the NHS Choices website to offer advice for diet and levels of exercise, and more funding over the next three for commissioning of more weight management services.

It is hoped that these initiatives will have a significant impact on reigning in the current epidemic of obesity. In England alone, nearly a quarter of men and women are now obese, but it is the figures for children that are causing the most worry, with 18% of two-15 year olds in the danger zone, the DH points out. Moreover, last year’s Foresight report on obesity forecast that, by 2050, nearly 60% of the UK will be obese, leading to a massive strain on the healthcare system and underscoring the urgent need to act now.

"It has never been more challenging to maintain a healthy weight as it is today,” stressed chief medical officer Sir Liam Donaldson. “A unified solution must be found and this is an important first stage in engaging the whole of society in this issue,” he said, commenting on the strategy.

Get a better life
Meanwhile, the University of Teesside has launched a unique health promotion research project to investigate whether a “community challenge” can help people in the Tees Valley, where levels of obesity are high, lead healthier lifestyles.

With the aid of a grant from the Food Standards Agency and support from Middlesbrough’s Evening Gazette and NHS Primary Care Trust, the Get a Better Life project aims to get 1,000 residents to make just two pledges - a small change to diet, i.e. a reduction in fat intake or increase in fruit and vegetables, and a small change to level of physical activity.

Participants will be asked to stick to these changes for the whole year, and certain data will be analysed by the research team at various stages of the project to assess whether they have made any difference.

“Creating incentives for better health by increasing the understanding and value people place on the long-term impact of decisions is highlighted in the government’s obesity strategy, and this is where the pledge component of the Get a Better Life campaign is unique,” explained Professor Carolyn Summerbell, head of the Universities Centre for Food, Physical Activity and Obesity and project lead.

According to Summerbell, heart disease and strokes cause more than 500 early deaths on Teesside every year, leaving people in some areas of Middlesbrough with the same average life expectancy as those in North Korea, Mongolia, Guatemala and Vanuata, and it is hoped that Get a Better Life will go some way in helping the region become healthier.