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Obesity prevention: Tam Fry, National Obesity Forum

For 20 years, Tam Fry has tirelessly campaigned to raise awareness of obesity. The chair of the National Obesity Forum talks to Kath Hudson about his career, the obesity crisis and where we go from here

by Kath Hudson | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 2
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Tam Fry
Tam Fry

When I first started commenting on obesity, the government projected that seven per cent of men and five per cent of women would be obese by 2005,” says Tam Fry, chair of the National Obesity Forum. “However, 20 years later, 27 per cent of men and women are obese and a further 25 per cent are overweight. I wake up every morning feeling depressed about the situation, but I will campaign for the rest of my life. Every day there is a new story on obesity for me to comment on.”

While the government stalls, the population continues to get fatter. The projection is that, by 2050, half of the UK population will be obese. Fry says it will take generations to reverse a problem that has been created in a couple of decades. “It will continue to get worse, daily, until the government recognises the extent of the issue and decides to tackle it head on. With May’s government caught up with Brexit, this won’t happen any time soon.”

Now aged 80, Fry, a former BBC television producer, is still as passionate as ever about his cause. He has been commenting on obesity since it was first recognised as a problem in the 1990s. His route into the space was co-founding the Child Growth Foundation in the 1970s, to raise awareness of children’s growth issues, after his daughter was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency.

One of the charity’s big wins came in 1995, when it used the growth data it had accumulated to create BMI charts for children – the first time this had ever been done. The parameters it set are still used today. “This sealed our fate, as everyone became very interested in obesity,” says Fry. So in addition to being spokesperson of the Child Growth Foundation, Fry took on the role of spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum, subsequently becoming its chair.

Poor people are fatter
Fry identifies a number of factors that have led to more than 60 per cent of the UK population being overweight, many of which boil down to a lack of time, money or both. Obesity is a product of deprivation, with a huge disparity between the most deprived areas and the most affluent. For example, in the deprived London borough Brent, 47 per cent of children under 11 are overweight, compared to 25 per cent in affluent Richmond.

According to Fry, public education is also lacking. “There is an astonishing level of ignorance about food; many people don’t understand calories and labelling. They are eating too much of the wrong food, with not enough exercise,” he says. “Also, we have crap leadership from public health and are forced to live in an obesogenic environment.”

Fry says that a generation lost out on cooking skills when catering was taken off the curriculum, and as a result, some parents are now being taught to cook by their children. “The food industry stepped in to fill the gap with processed food, containing an unhealthy level of hidden sugars,” he says. “Both money and time are factors. It takes time to buy ingredients and cook from scratch, but it’s easy to buy ready-made food and put it in a microwave. Also, many families can’t afford to eat well – the cheapest food is junk food.”

Government inaction
The situation is unlikely to change until the government is prepared to take on the food industry. “In practical terms, the only agency that can orchestrate change in society is government and it needs to act in a forceful manner, but for 25 years, successive governments have refused to take action,” says Fry. “The long term success depends on the food industry reformulating products, but they have built up huge followings by training people to eat ultra sweet food and now argue that they can’t just take the sugar out.”

The food industry is a fearsome opponent for the government. It yields £112bn tax revenue, and provides one in 10 jobs in the UK. “It would take a strong government to tackle the food industry,” says Fry, “but Tony Blair and David Cameron both had sufficient majorities to do this.”

However, despite the protests from the food industry, it may soon get past the tipping point, where the government is spending more on coping with the problems of obesity than it receives from the food industry. The country is now spending £6.1bn a year on obesity alone, if you include comorbidities the figure rises to £24bn.

“The greatest harm of obesity is the comorbidities it triggers, including diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, hypertension, stroke, liver problems and fertility problems,” he says. “If people understood how the fat inside them clogs their life-giving organs, I’m sure they would be more inclined to tackle their weight. Ninety five per cent of people who are overweight could prevent it, there are only a very small number who have genetic problems.”

How can we help?
Providing low cost and fun opportunities to exercise is the best way for the industry to help, particularly in engaging children, says Fry. “Fun is the most important ingredient, and cost remains a major barrier for many people, which is why I’m a big fan of outdoor exercise and open air gyms. I also have a lot of time for organisations that help to educate people on nutrition and diet.”

Going forward, Fry looks forward to the day when all children are routinely measured from birth onwards. “The key to a better future is to work with children and stop them becoming fat, because once they are fat adults it’s too late,” he says. “We need to do everything to ensure kids proceed at a healthy weight, pass this down to their kids and then slowly we will get a healthy population. That’s an achievement I look forward to, but I don’t think I will be around to see it. It depends on a government recognising the enormity of the problem and doing something dramatic about it.”

Tam’s tips for a healthier nation

1. Ban TV ads for foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar [HFSS] until 9pm and across the board on social media.

2. Step up action to limit HFSS in all UK-produced food and drink. The sugary drinks levy (effective April 1st) will be a success, and will demonstrate that using fiscal levers to influence reformulation works.

3. Set calorie and portion limits for all food and drink products. Make it mandatory for calorie counts to be displayed on all goods.

4. Ban shop promotions that result in people buying more. These ‘bargains’ account for most of the 10 per cent that we overeat.

5. Create a mandate to improve nutritional labelling on all packaged foods together with a uniform traffic light system. Breaking from the rigid EU system will help.

6. Focus on obesity prevention measures, particularly in the the crucial first 1,000 days of a child’s life. A child picking up bad eating/lifestyle habits in its early years sets the seal for later obesity.

7. Clamp down on fast food/corner shops within range of schools. Burger joints and vans make a mockery of attempts to encourage schoolchildren to eat healthily.

A new levy on sugary drinks aims to reduce childhood obesity / © shutterstock/billion photos
A new levy on sugary drinks aims to reduce childhood obesity/ © shutterstock/billion photos

An unheeded warning

Published in 2014, The McKinsey Report made David Cameron vow to tackle the obesity issue with draconian measures. Unfortunately, he left office without implementing his strategy and Theresa May replaced it with a weaker version.

A strategy of 44 interventions were recommended. These included reformulation of food products, restrictions on advertising, higher taxation on high sugar or high fat products, active transport, workplace wellness and public health campaigns.

The report says if nothing changes, almost half of the world’s population could be overweight or obese by 2030.

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