No improvement in the Scottish diet - but there's appetite for change

Disappointed - but from the evidence all around us, hardly surprised - to learn that Scotland’s notoriously poor diet hasn’t improved in the last 17 years, while adult and child obesity and diet-related illnesses have reached record levels.

High-fat, salt and sugar-based foods are responsible for two-thirds of adults being either overweight or obese, leading to increased levels of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many forms of cancer, while one in three children living in Scotland remain overweight or obese despite the Scottish government’s dietary goals aimed at encouraging healthier eating. Poor diet was a contributory factor in 6697 Scottish deaths from coronary heart disease in 2016, and 2181 deaths from stroke.

Over 30% of Primary One schoolchildren had obvious dental decay in 2016, and 29% of the adult population have high blood pressure.

Absence from work due to diet-related ill-health means that the obesity crisis is now an economic, as well as a national health, issue.

At the launch in Glasgow today [Monday February 26] of its Situation Report entitled The Scottish Diet: It Needs to Change, Food Standards Scotland (FSS) declared that the Scottish diet has to change and has called on all stakeholders, including food manufacturers, retailers, politicians and the media, to work together to tackle the problem.

FSS chief executive Geoff Ogle said: “Poor diet is having a serious impact on individuals and on society. Obesity has the capacity to cripple our health services and is a threat to the economy through absence from work through diet-related illness. It is no longer solely a health issue, it is also increasingly an economic one.”

NHS Health Scotland estimates that obesity currently costs the economy, both directly and indirectly, up to £4.6 billion per year, with Scotland now showing the highest incidences of obesity for both men and women among OECD countries.

The second report published by Food Standards Scotland - which advises the Scottish Government on its dietary goals - monitors purchases and price promotions in supermarkets and shops. This is particularly revealing, for it shows the continuing influence of the supermarkets on our buying habits.  While there is a welcome decline in sugar from soft drinks - in the run-up to the sugar levy coming into force in April - this has been offset by increases in sugar purchase from other foods like ice-cream, biscuits and desserts.

Retail price promotions continue to be skewed towards less healthy categories. We are still buying 36% of our overall calories on price promotion, and this can be over 40% of purchases in some Scottish retailers. The report indicates that we are encouraged to buy up to three-quarters (74%) of confectionery on a price promotion.

“The Scottish diet is stuck,” said Heather Peace, head of public health nutrition at FSS. “It remains too high in calories, fats, sugar and salt, and too low in fibre, fruit and veg, and other healthy foods like oil-rich fish. Poor diet exists across all socio-economic groups, but the most deprived tend to have the poorest diets.

“Discretionary foods and drinks, including alcohol, are high in calories, low in nutritional value and are not necessary for our health,” she said, adding that a decline in purchases of sugar drinks had been offset by “disappointing” increases of sugar-laden foods.

Food and drink consumed out of home accounts for some of the worst nutritional value. Interestingly - or, to be more accurate, disturbingly - it was found that when eating away from home, children aged up to 12 tend to eat more unhealthy foods such as burgers, cola, chips, fizzy drinks, cakes and biscuits, fried chicken, and ice cream.

However, there was good news in that public opinion was changing for the better. Nine out of ten people agree that obesity is a serious problem in Scotland, two-thirds think that cafes and restaurants should display calories on their menus, and almost half of Scots support a ban on unhealthy products.

Rather than introduce legislation, calorie indicators or warning labels on food similar to those on cigarette packets, the FSS preferred to encourage behavioural change. “We need to shift consumer behaviour and change the food environment, and are encouraged by the responses from the public, for they demonstrate that there's appetite for change,” said chief executive Geoff Ogle. “Now we need a cross-party effort in achieving this, and the food manufacturers and retailers have to help.”

FSS’s report will feed into the Scottish Government’s updated Obesity Strategy, due to be launched this summer.

Watch this space ...