SPECTRUM Consortium

How can we turn the tide on obesity? Taking forward recommendations from the healthy weight strategy

Caroline Cerny from the Obesity Health Alliance shares highlights from our joint webinar on 16 November, exploring how to turn recommendations from the recently published healthy weight strategy into action.

Headshot of Caroline Cerny
Caroline Cerny, Obesity Health Alliance

In September 2021, the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) published ‘Turning the Tide: A 10-year Healthy Weight Strategy.’ The document sets out a long-term agenda for policymakers to achieve what no other country has managed – to turn the rising tide of excess weight back towards healthier weight.

The strategy includes 30 recommendations for evidence-backed policy action, informed by a group of expert advisors including researchers, clinicians and policy experts.

The launch of the report marked an important first step, but in order to achieve the change we want to see we need to turn our recommendations into action. To kick off the conversation, SPECTRUM and the OHA hosted a joint webinar for researchers, NGOs and officials with an interest in healthy weight to reflect on the strategy development process and discuss crucial next steps.

A moment for change

Reinforcing the need for urgent action, the webinar coincided with the publication of stark new data on childhood excess weight prevalence in England – showing an unprecedented increase taking levels to 14.4% in 4-5 year old children and 25.5% in children aged 11-12 (previously 9.9% and 21% respectively). In her opening statements, Professor Linda Bauld OBE, academic lead to the strategy, expressed her hope that the new data would turbo-charge governments’ efforts to address children’s health as we look to a future beyond COVID-19.

Linda was joined by project chair, Professor Dame Anne Johnson, to share her reflections on the endeavour. An infectious disease epidemiologist, Anne noted interesting similarities between obesity and sexually transmitted infections, in particular the interacting role between biology and the environment and the fact that everyone has an (usually strong) opinion on both areas - due to the role food and sex play in people’s lives.

Anne also provided an interesting insight into the problem of stigma, commenting how moved she had been by the input of people with lived experience of obesity and their reports of the devastating weight stigma they are exposed to. Comparing it to the stigma experienced by those with sexually transmitted infections in the 1980s, she highlighted how stigma is a barrier to public health policy, encouraging those with lived experience to keep speaking up while recognising the challenges of doing so.

Anne also stressed the importance of engaging with the public during the development of public health measures – and will be a vital element in ensuring the success of the healthy weight strategy.

Reaching consensus

A core aim of ‘Turning the Tide’ was to identify a clear pathway for policy and interventions that have the backing of the NGO and public health community. Reaching consensus was a key part of the process to creating a strategy we believe can catalyse change.

Dr Lauren Carters-White described how her team at the University of Edinburgh developed a series of rapid evidence reviews, which were supplemented by expert papers commissioned by the OHA. The role of the expert advisors was to analyse the evidence and identify areas for recommendations. These were then shaped by experts and OHA members into policy recommendations.

Lauren highlighted how reaching consensus wasn’t always straightforward, but the challenge of differing views brought rigour to the process.

A framework for action and accountability

Providing an overview of the Keep/Intensify/New/Develop framework used to order the strategy recommendations, Dame Una O’Brien, a member of the expert group, highlighted the importance of coherence to avoid giving governments a reason to ignore multiple recommendations.

As well as providing a framework for action, Una emphasised the potential for the framework to act as an accountability tool for reviewing government progress. She pointed to the work of Dolly Theiss and Martin White, a highly informative study identifying 14 government strategies with 689 recommendations to address healthy weight in the last 30 years – but these recommendations had not yet resulted in the positive public health change that they set out to achieve.

Finally, she gave three strands of advice for the work we can do as a community to turn recommendations into action: continue to articulate the problem, act across a wide horizon (beyond health departments) and include other government departments and institutions and bring clarity and consensus to the debate about further government action.

Avoiding cyber-dust

‘Turning the Tide’ is now launched, but its impact is ongoing. Our final panel discussion focused on ensuring continued use of the report, to avoid it gathering ‘cyber-dust’.

Each of our speakers emphasised the role the wider NGO and public health community can play by continuing to socialise the report – by flagging it to colleagues or mentioning it in meetings. This all helps build on the work being done by OHA to discuss the report and recommendations with policymakers in government and parliamentarians.

We all have a role to play if we are to turn the tide towards healthy weight.

We want to hear your views – you have the chance to feed in and help shape our next steps. What do you think of ‘Turning the Tide: A 10-year Healthy Weight Strategy’? What interventions or policy areas related to improving healthy weight would you like to see the government address next? Get in touch and share your thoughts at info@obesityhealthalliance.org.uk.