Alison Johnstone: Obesity is still the weightiest problem we have to tackle

The Scottish Health Survey was published last week, and, in terms of the nation’s wellbeing, the picture was mixed.

Tuesday, 1st October 2019, 6:00 am
Scotland head coach Shelley Kerr

There were some encouraging revelations, such as that 19 per cent of adults surveyed smoked in 2018, down from 28 per cent in 2003, and that ten per cent consumed sugary drinks every day, down from 20 per cent in 2016. However, some of the most shocking statistics are around obesity in Scotland. The figure that two-thirds of adults are overweight is a familiar one, and it is this familiarity which is concerning. The proportion of adults that are overweight or obese has remained fairly static since 2008. For over a decade, Scotland has been facing a public health crisis and we seem to be no closer to tackling it.

The health issues associated with obesity are well-publicised, including increased risk of cancer, heart disease and stroke. While it is important that awareness of the risks is raised, clearly this is not enough. We must make sure we are supporting people who struggle with obesity, rather than just hitting them over the head with often alarming facts.

The British Psychological Society recently released a report which emphasised that the environment in which we work and live, as well as genetic factors, can increase our likelihood of becoming overweight. It urged policymakers to avoid messaging which suggests that tackling obesity is only a matter of willpower. Behavioural changes are needed but the barriers to maintaining a healthy weight are complex and must not be dismissed in favour of overly simplistic arguments about personal choice.

Those who live in the most deprived areas often have limited access to affordable healthy food, as well as opportunities for physical exercise. The Scottish Government acknowledges that children ­getting the best start in life in terms of nutrition and access to healthy food is vital to tackling obesity. However, the Scottish Health Survey revealed that only 15 per cent of children met the five-a-day recommendation and that nine per cent of adults experienced food insecurity. Imagine the difficulty of planning a healthy, balanced diet when you are unsure whether you will even be able to feed yourself and your family properly.

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Leading an active lifestyle is also vital for the prevention and reduction of obesity, but the survey also showed that adults in the most deprived areas were more likely to have very low activity levels than those in the least deprived areas. Sports facilities, where they are available, can be prohibitively expensive and as austerity continues to impact on public sector spending, council expenditure on sports and leisure facilities has continued to decline.

Shelley Kerr, pictured, head coach of Scotland’s national women’s football team is right to call for free access to sport for all children and young people. We need to make being active the norm. Sweden is incredibly successful in this regard and club membership levels are impressive. If we don’t invest in sports and leisure facilities, both nationally and locally, it will become increasingly difficult for people to lead the healthy, active lifestyles that are necessary to tackle obesity. We should be making it easier, not harder, for people to go for a swim, join a local sports team, or try out some exercise equipment.

There is still an inordinate amount of stigma surrounding obesity, and the barriers to healthy eating and being physically active show no signs of disappearing. Until we tackle the root causes of Scotland’s obesity problem, I fear next year’s survey results will be more of the same and the costs to individuals, families and our NHS will continue to rise.

Alison Johnstone is a Green MSP for Lothian.