Aseem Malhotra1&2, Mahiben Maruthappu3, Terence Stephenson4
Tackling the obesity epidemic and its asso- ciated adverse health consequences is one of today’s important public health chal- lenges. Obesity directly costs the National Health Service (NHS) about £6 billion per year. Direct and indirect costs of diabetes are estimated to be £24 billion and are likely to double over the next 20 years.1 Some fundamental among the medical and healthcare com- munity and lay public inhibit the imple- mentation of effective interventions. Our decisions about the food we buy and what we eat are often automatic and made without full conscious awareness.2For example, despite wanting to lose weight, we’re still tempted to buy the brightly packaged chocolate bar at the checkout till.
The lifestyle hierarchy places diet as a powerful common determinant of cardio- vascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and several cancers.3The Lancet Global Burden of Disease Study reports that poor diet contributes to more disease than phys- ical inactivity, smoking and alcohol com- bined.4Recent scientific advances support a number of specific dietary targets to be prioritised for the prevention of cardiovas- cular disease. Several are aimed at increas- ing consumption of healthy foods, with a number to reduce the consumption of harmful ones. The ?-linoleic acid, poly- phenols and omega-3 fatty acids found in abundance in nuts, fruit, vegetables, olive oil and oily fish rapidly exert positive health effects by attenuating thrombosis and inflammation,5and it is estimated that increasing population fruit and vegetables by one portion per day and nut consumption by two servings a week would prevent 5.2 million deaths from cardiovascular within just 1 year.6Conversely, the con- sumption of trans-fats commonly found in misunderstandings consumptionof disease globally fast food can rapidly increase C-reactive protein and other inflammatory markers within weeks.7Reducing consumption of sugary drinks by 15% would prevent 180 000 people from becoming obese in the UK in the same time period and save £275 million for re-investment in the NHS.8
Real progress towards combating the obesity epidemic and diseases associated with diet will only start once a root cause —the need for a healthier food environ- ment—is understood. The success of the junk food industry depends on the avail- ability of their products to anyone, any- where, at any time. Tackling the obesity burden requires collective action, and there is no single silver bullet, but there is an established hierarchy of effectiveness. The Centres of Disease Control health impact pyramid shows that, by changing the context—that is, the food environment —so that individuals’ choices about what to eat default to healthy options will have a far greater impact on population health than counselling or education. Healthy choice must become the easy choice.9 Changing the context of smoking by insist- ing on smoke-free buildings has had a huge impact on reducing smoking preva- lence and improving health. Within just 1 year of the introduction of smoke-free legislation in Scotland, there was a 17% reduction in admissions for heart attacks and a 6% decrease in out-of-hospital cardiac deaths.10
The Boorman Report demonstrated that better staff health and well-being is asso- ciated with better organisational perform- ance and improved patient outcomes.11 The NHS is the primary interface with ‘health’ for most of the population, and so the workforce environment and the atti- tudes to health and well-being and diet of NHS staff can impact on health promo- tion. However, the oversupply of cheap, high-energy but nutrient-poor food and drink even pervades the institutions that should be promoting positive health mes- sages—our hospitals. Confectionary, crisps and sugary drinks are available to staff and patients through vending machines in hos- pital corridors and to bed-bound patients via hospital trolleys. Also, many hospitals have high-street fast-food franchises on site. Thus acceptability and consumption of such foods is legitimised by being in a healthcaresetting. availability of healthy food options limits choice for many NHS staff, half of whom are estimated to be overweight or obese.12 Educating people about healthy eating is difficult when the food environment is so unhealthy.
Strategies that prevent excessive weight gain for children and adults by reducing consumption of unhealthy foods should be welcomed. However, focusing only on weight loss by any means is a missed opportunity and so potentially harmful. Health practitioners should move beyond the traditional,well-intentioned limited dietary advice—to ‘eat less and move more’—and be more specific and evidence based. Regular physical activity consisting of a 30 min brisk walk per day has tremendous cardiovascular, bone and musculoskeletal benefits, but the link to obesity is weak13and its benefits are undermined by poor dietary habits. A recent longitudinal cohort study involving 175 countries showed that, for every add- itional 150 sugar-based kilocalories con- sumed daily (typical of a can of cola) compared with calories from another source, there was an 11-fold increase in the prevalence of developing type 2 dia- betes independent of body mass index and physical activity levels.14You can’t outrun a bad diet.
Although gradual weight reduction and physicalactivity have improvement is a much more effective approach to health improvement in both the short and long term. The NHS as an employer is in a key position to set a national example, to support 1.4 million staff to stay healthy, and serve as ‘health ambassadors’ in their local communities. While three-quarters of NHS trusts say they offer support to help staff to quit smoking, only about a third offer them support in keeping to a healthy weight and diet. Three-quarters of hospitals do not offer healthy food to staff working night shifts.19
Informing patients and the public how diet can improve health is the responsibil- ity of all healthcare workers, who should lead by example. To do this, health workers need to have education, training and access to information. nutrition curriculumswould ofheart merits,dietary It is time to put the evidence base that dietary changes can rapidly and substan- tially improve health outcomes into the heart of the NHS (box 1).20Offering NHS staff the opportunity to make their diets healthier would be a good start to improve the health of the NHS workforce and their patients. This model could then be adopted into other workplace environments.