The picture behind Lutons rise in obesity

Take an ever-growing number of fast food shops, add a lack of support by the local hospital with a dash of pricey leisure centres in one of England’s most deprived towns and hey presto: you’ve got the recipe for an obesity outbreak.

Luton has an obesity epidemic and it’s infectuous. With what feels like a new fast food joint getting built or refurbished every other week, the council needs to take action to help prevent Lutonians from making unhealthy lifestyle decisions which impact their quality of life.

1 in 5 children in the town are classed as obese, and the stat increases for adults with more than a quarter of them overweight a report by NHS Luton concluded.

Whilst the physical effects of obesity include Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, this often overshadows its mental effects. The National Obesity Observatory states that, ‘A weight stigma increases vulnerability to depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, maladaptive eating behaviours and excercise avoidance.’ To have the aforementioned symptoms in Lisbon is one thing, to have them in Luton, where over 30% of children live below the poverty line (data provided by End Child Poverty), it creates a hotbed for unhealthy choices, poor lifestyle and a challenging existence which ultimately affects the taxpayer.

Mike, aged 23, from Luton who classes himself as slightly overweight but not obese says to me, ‘It is far too easy to access fast food in Luton. It’s an easy option as opposed to cooking a meal at home and it feels lighter on the pockets and less time consuming,’ he tells me on his way home.

‘The fact that there are so many fast food shops makes them harder to avoid,’ he adds.

This point is perfectly illustrated as McDonalds are expected to open a new restaurant a stones throwaway from a community leisure centre and adjacent to Downside Primary School. This will no doubt lead to many children pestering parents for daily happy meals when being picked up from school but furthermore it demonstrates the demanding battle that Luton is up against.

Fast food shops prosper in deprived towns and so does obesity. Likewise it’s no coincidence that the rise in poverty correlates with the rise in the number of obese people which the following statistics indicate. A study in 2014 by the End Child Poverty charity showed that 32% of children live below the poverty line. Public Health England found that 23.7% of children in the area are classified as obese. Both stats have regrettably increased over the past decade.

It’s the classic domino effect with poverty taking the role as the first chip, no pun intended.

There can be a tendency amongst some thinkers to suggest that obesity is an occurrance which an individual has placed on themselves through the heavy consumption of unwholesome foods and a lack of a healthy diet. Others may believe that the food industry is to blame with their aggressive marketing, economical prices and excessively harmful ingredients such as sugars, leavening agents, and completely synthetic components. Some will advocate that it is genetics that contributes to obesity. All are to a certain extent accurate as environmentalist Paul Hawkens said but which can aptly be applied to obesity, ‘All is connected… no one thing can change by itself.’

Nonetheless for too long politicians, scientists and think tanks have continuously debated about the cause and effects of obesity. As fruitful as this has been in blaming the causes of obesity, it suggests that action has to be taken at a government level to kick start any sign of change.

Some may think that the government, and society as a whole, shouldn’t have to intervene on an issues relating to dietery and nutritional services. However when the cost of obesity and its effects is costing the UK £47 bn a year, 3% of the GDP (Mckinsey and Company 2014), its time the government stops treating obesity like the elephant in the room.

Some minor changes have taken place in the past decide but they have done little to fight the battle against obesity. School dinners are healthier than they were 20 years ago. In addition food manufacturers are required to show the nutritional value in their products (however some of their data can be misleading) to help consumers make informed choices.

A teacher at unnamed school in Luton who wished to remain anonymous, tells me that,’ Schools are doing what they can as they follow government guidelines to feed children a healthy diet.’

‘However when children are bringing Lucozades and other energy drinks, which are absolutely filled with sugar, in to school every morning there is little teachers can do except to tell them to put away in their bag.’

She seems frustrated and despaired when I ask her if parents could be doing more to not only help the school maintaining order but ultimately directing their children towards a more healthy diet. After releasing a sigh, she answers, ‘Energy drinks are cheap. Some are cheaper than a bottle of water! Their choice in food and drinks is largely reflected in their income or lack of it and that ultimately trickles down to their children.’

It can be construed that a synopsis on Luton and obesity isn’t a pretty picture. Although the diagnosis is complicated and overly problematic, there are two issues that need to be dealt with. These two issues are established on the idea, as with change anywhere, that an individual is willing to accept that obesity is a hindrance that can be overcome.

However, as in the case of issues relating health, it ultimately comes down to determination and choices of an individual.

Firstly those who are currently obese require better care. Luton and Dunstable Hospital found that merely 34% of obese children and 2% of overweight patients were offered advice or specialist support. People who are obese need a support circle, whether that be in form of friends, family or specialists from the NHS and local council, preferably a combination of all of them. In addition the cost of an annual gym membership has increased the years despite Luton seeing it residents take in lower wages. The Office for National Statistics stated that Luton is the poorest town in the East of England. Its residents do not have the same amount of disposable income as residents of Langport. With the average gym membership in the UK currently at a deterring £30 pounds, the council should and could make gym memberships more affordable.

Secondly, as with all predicaments, the most of effective way to tackle them is to get to the root of it. Wide-sweeping changes need to be formed and implemented by the government. Top-down reformations are necessary. New laws are crucial.

Whilst there will always be opposition to new regulation, it is required and essential to witness any transformation. Although the government has made some minor changes, such as introducing healthy meals in schools, ensuring children receive their fruit and veg, there is a lot more to be done.

David Cameron is mistaken to completely dismiss the idea of the so called ‘sugar tax’ whilst simultaneously complaining about the rising cost of the NHS. As Teddy Roosevelt once said, ‘ Complaining about a problem without posing a solution is called whining,’ a trait the Prime minister specializes in.

Our American counterparts are taking the issue more seriously. California has introduced a ‘Soda Tax’ as Berkeley voters backed 1-cent-an-ounce tax on soft drinks.

However it’s Mexico that leads the world by example. A 10% tax on fizzy drinks has seen sales of sugar filled beverages drop 6% with researchers stating increasing a tax of 20% would see that number drop even further. Although, like most taxes, it would hit the poorest the hardest and pricing them out of sugar-filled beverages isn’t necessarily the approach the government should take.

Nonetheless this shouldn’t prevent the Luton council from raising awareness on the effects of obesity and its causes. An onus should be placed on fast food restuarants to disclose the dietary information on the food they sell. Ultimatetly, responsibility falls on the individual and until our perceptions to fast food change, the obesity epidemic only looks like increasing. Afterall eating healthy isn’t a fad or a trend, it’s a lifestyle.