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Diet and obesity

"With the UK displaying the highest levels of obesity in western Europe and one in three children overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school, it’s hard to find families unaffected by this health issue which urgently needs addressing."

Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, Chair of the BMA's Board of Science

Doctors have significant concerns about the impact of poor diet on the nation’s health which, especially when coupled with an inactive lifestyle, is associated with a range of adverse health consequences including increased risk of chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, type II diabetes and poor dental health.

The BMA has long campaigned for measures to reduce the levels of obesity, including action targeted at improving children's diets, and increasing active travel and physical activity levels.


Key policies

The BMA has a range of policies covering the promotion of a healthy diet, an underlying cause of high levels of obesity. These are:

  • Supporting local authorities to create healthier food environments 
  • Introducing a mandatory, standardised approach to food labelling to enable consumers to make informed choices
  • Restricting children’s exposure to high fat, salt or sugar food promotion 
  • Using a range of fiscal measures and incentives to encourage healthy eating patterns
  • Introducing regulatory backing for UK wide reformulation targets to reduce calorie, fat, saturated fat, salt and added sugar levels for high fat, salt or sugar products
  • Providing adequate funding for public health services so they are able to respond to the needs of the populations they serve
  • Ensuring a health and social care system that is capable of responding to the needs of overweight and obese adults and children

Download our diet and obesity report


Patterns of adult and childhood obesity are fairly consistent across the nations of the UK. Many legislative changes or proposals have implications for the whole of the UK. For example, the soft drinks industry levy is a UK-wide industry tax, and any changes to broadcast regulations enacted through Advertising Standards Authority would also have UK-wide implications. However, health and food policy are devolved powers so there are also variations between the nations in the legislative and regulatory responses to the problem.

Open the tabs below to view some developments from across the UK in more detail, and see previous BMA reports on diet and obesity.


  • Recent policy development across the UK

    Childhood obesity: a plan for action

    Childhood obesity: a plan for action was released by Public Health England in August 2016. It focused on action in England, but also contained proposals for the introduction of a UK-wide levy on soft drinks. The BMA and others criticised the lack of ambition in the plan, particularly the reliance on voluntary targets for reformulation and the lack of provisions to address advertising, marketing or promotion of unhealthy foods.

    Childhood obesity: a plan for action, chapter 2 was published in June 2018. There were welcome commitments to address a wider range of issue areas than chapter 1, including commitments to:

    • Legislate for mandatory calorie labelling for the out-of-home sector;
    • Consult on introducing a 9pm watershed for HFSS advertising on television;
    • Restrict promotion of unhealthy food either through retail offers or placement in stores;
    • Strengthen the role of local authorities in establishing healthier food environments.

    Early results of the voluntary sugar reduction programme for food showed disappointing results – an average of 2% against a 5% target – and the strategy suggested a willingness to explore regulatory measures if voluntary sugar and calorie reduction targets do not deliver the desired results. It also stated that the Treasury would consider extending the soft drinks industry levy, which was introduced in April 2018 and welcomed by the BMA, to include sugary milk-based drinks. 

    A Healthier Future – Scotland’s diet and healthy weight delivery plan

    A Healthier Future sets out a raft of actions designed by the Scottish government to achieve 5 core outcomes:

    • The best start for children;
    • The food environment supporting healthier choices;
    • Providing effective weight management services;
    • A cross-sector focus on diet and obesity; and reducing diet-related inequalities.

    These actions encompass a number of devolved and local authority powers, such as raising food standards in schools and public-sector settings, supporting low-income families facing food security, and exploring regulation to control the advertising of HFSS products near schools.

    A Healthier Future also calls on the UK government to implement a number of proposals made in the childhood obesity plan, such as extending the soft-drinks industry levy to include milk-based drinks, taking stronger action if voluntary reformulation proves ineffective, making front-of-pack labelling mandatory and introducing a 9pm watershed on HFSS broadcast advertising alongside a greater exploration of the impact and available controls of online advertising. 


    National strategy on preventing and reducing obesity – Wales (forthcoming)

    The Welsh government committed in the Public Health (Wales) Act 2017 to implement a national obesity strategy – thanks in part due to lobbying from the BMA. The Obesity Alliance Cymru (of which the BMA is a member) has called on the strategy to protect children, make healthy choices easier and create a healthy environment, with action backed by adequate training, support and leadership.

    The strategy should include adequate provision for local authorities, ensure that professionals are trained to provide support to those who are obese and overweight and provide holistic healthcare services to those that need them. The strategy should also urge the UK government to implement a number of provisions, including strengthening traffic-light labelling and restricting exposure to HFSS advertising.


    A Fitter Future for All – Northern Ireland

    A Fitter Future for All is a broad, cross-departmental 10-year framework running from 2012-2022. It is designed to prevent and address overweight and obesity in Northern Ireland. By embedding this across a number of government departments, the framework seeks to ‘empower the people of Northern Ireland… by creating an environment that supports and promotes a physically active lifestyle and a healthy diet’.

    Although there were some tentatively positive results after the first review period in 2015, there has been little legislative progress since early 2017. 

  • Doctors' opinions on hospital food for patients, doctors and visitors

    The results of a survey of doctors by the BMA suggests that the hospital food environment is not a particularly healthy one. Doctors indicated that:

    • they do not believe the food served to inpatients, the food available to doctors in staff canteens, or the food available for purchase by patients, staff and visitors in hospital concourses, promotes a healthy balanced diet
    • there is a lack of variety and choice
    • during night shifts they are particularly badly served, with the only food available to purchase often being unhealthy products from vending machines.

    Download the survey results

  • BMA briefing: Food for thought

    Food for thought: promoting a healthy diet among children and young people

    The 2015 board of science report, Food for thought: promoting a healthy diet among children and young people, brings together a range of policies targeted at children and diet, including policies on obesity, these include:

    • Collaboration between schools and local authorities to deliver a whole-school approach to healthier diets
    • Prohibiting the marketing of energy-dense food and drink products to children and young people
    • Specific provisions preventing the marketing via non-broadcast media that appeals in any way to children and young people
    • Prohibiting any sponsorship of events, activities, individuals or groups that appeal in any way to children and young people
    • Restricting marketing and sponsorship of unhealthy food and drink products in schools
    • Prohibiting retailers from displaying unhealthy food and drink products at checkouts and in queuing areas, targeting children
    • Ensuring that all mandatory food standards apply to all academy schools and free schools
    • Ensuring a free fruit and vegetable scheme is available to all primary school children throughout the UK, five days per week

    Read the report

  • BMA briefing: Healthy transport = healthy lives

    As well as targeting action on children and obesity, the BMA also has a wide-range of policy covering physical activity and active travel. The 2012 board of science publication, Healthy transport = healthy lives, brings together a number of these key policies:

    • calling for a halt to the sale of assets such as school playgrounds and sports fields
    • ambitious growth targets for walking and cycling, with increased funding and resources
    • a call for healthcare organisations to work with local authorities to ensure support for physically active travel
    • regulating to prioritise active and sustainable forms of transport

    Download the report

  • BMA briefing: Why should we care about prevention?

    Advances in diagnosis and treatment have transformed modern medicine and meant that as a society we are all living longer. This should be celebrated. Yet with it, the NHS needs to consider how to respond to these societal changes both now and in the future. Demographic change, widening health inequalities and increasingly complex long-term conditions are all contributing to the year-round pressures our members and patients are seeing across the NHS.

    In order to meet these changes and guarantee the long-term sustainability of the NHS it is vital that we prioritise and adequately fund prevention. The health and economic case for doing so is compelling:

    • Preventable ill-health accounts for an estimated: 50% of all GP appointments, 64% of outpatient appointments and 70% of all inpatient bed days
    • 40% of the uptake of health services may be preventable through action on smoking, drinking alcohol, physical inactivity and poor diet
    • Healthcare costs increase by 45% for each person with a comorbid mental health problem and long-term condition

    Our briefing, 'Prevention before cure: securing the long-term sustainability of the NHS' sets out in more detail the health and economic case.

    Download the briefing