Weight loss is notoriously hard in the UK. It is why the government have recently pledged £100 million to support people living with obesity to achieve and maintain a healthier weight. The majority of the money (£70 million) is to be invested into weight management services, including digital apps, weight management groups or individual coaches and clinical support. The remaining £30 million is earmarked for a free NHS app with a 12-week weight loss plan and continuation of the Better Health marketing campaign to encourage us to make healthier choices.
These incentives focus on us as individuals to make certain choices that will help us to lose weight. The problem is, most of us already know what choices we should make if we want to lose weight, and try hard to make them; yet it is just not that easy to keep it up. Why not? The main reason is because our ‘choices’ are not the straightforward decision based on a rational thought process that we think they are. It is often not a lack of self-discipline or willpower that makes weight loss difficult; it is the unsupportive food environment that encourages overeating and promotes foods high in fat, salt and sugar wherever we are.
Our ‘food environment’ is all the places we can buy food, how easy (or not) it is to get to them, and what we see when we are there, for example, the red discount labels on products or the end-of-aisle promotions. You can listen to our episode all about supermarket psychology here.
How our food environment shapes our choices
1. Our ‘choices’ are heavily influenced by what we see around us - be it the ubiquitous food marketing on TV and social media, the enticing new products by the till or the supermarket deals on all the unhealthy snacks. It is all designed to keep food on our minds and tempt us to pick up a treat.
2. Where we live changes the food available to us: people living in poorer areas are likely to have more unhealthy options nearby than if they lived in a more affluent area.
3. Our family food environment as we grew up will have had an effect on the foods we like, and therefore buy: dessert might have been a reward for finishing your peas, or you might have only known curry-based dishes at home and love to try something different. Maybe Saturday nights were takeaway nights. This will all affect how you see food now.
4. The food environment at home as an adult also has a huge impact on the food we buy and eat. Ever tried to resist your favourite chocolate when your partner is eating it in front of you, or snacked on a biscuit simply because the biscuit tin was out on the counter? Resisting temptation is a lot harder when it is everywhere.
Of course, people can lose weight effectively, despite an unsupportive environment. People who are successful with weight loss employ a whole range of strategies to improve their chances, such as: checking labels on the foods they buy; not going to the supermarket hungry; making a shopping list and only buying those items; avoiding certain aisles containing tempting foods or shopping online to avoid seeing them; not bringing cash to work for the cafe or vending machine; planning meals around social occasions or avoiding them altogether, and many more.
When strategies work and people lose weight, the notion that it is really down to the individual to take responsibility to maintain a healthy weight seems obvious. However, it is telling that effective strategies nearly always include an avoidance or complex navigation of the retail food environment or social occasions, which are often centred around food. To make it even harder, the constant temptations seem even more appealing when you are restricting foods, potentially feeling hungry and deprived. Over time, it is not surprising that people find it unsustainable to maintain these strategies - they make it very difficult to act spontaneously or enjoy time with friends and family.
Improving Your Food Environment
It will take a while before enough tangible changes to our food environment are made by both business and government to make healthy options the easier ones. So, in the meantime, here are some tips on how to improve your food environment without avoiding it.
● Keep fruit out on the kitchen counter in an appealing display.
● Hide less nutritious treats like biscuits out of sight in a cupboard, rather than having a biscuit tin out on the counter.
● Store the healthier food at eye level in the fridge and in your cupboards.
● If you have space, leave your blender and slow cooker out too so that you’re more likely to use them (if you have them).
● Prepare healthy snacks and lunches that are also tasty, so that you look forward to eating them.
● Eat somewhere that is not your desk and preferably screen-free, so that you can enjoy your food without distractions.
● Change your snacking mindset so that a ‘snack’ can include a chat with a colleague or quick five-minute walk. If you work from home, you could also have a quick stretch or get your heart rate up a little with twenty squats!
Out and About
● Be aware of how you are being marketed to so that you are less likely to buy foods you did not need or want.
● In the supermarket, check the prices per 100g or kg, as promotions are not always the cheaper option and are often found on less nutritious foods.
● Keep some nuts, rice cakes/ corn cakes/ oatcakes, a piece of fruit or other healthy snack option in your bag so that you have an option if you get hungry and there are no healthy snacks available.
● Focus on enjoyment with friends and whatever food that means, rather than worrying about excess calories: overall balance is key, and happiness and positive social connections are just as important as physical health.
While individual action is important for weight management, it really helps to know what obstacles are in your way to avoid self-destructive criticism. With so much in your food environment making weight loss difficult, finding it hard is not a sign of weakness!
This blog post was written by Kimberley Neve, who is a Registered Associate Nutritionist specialising in weight management. She owns Neve Nutrition and Wellbeing, offering personalised nutrition consultations to help clients stop dieting and make positive changes that last and become a new lifestyle. She also works in food environment research, advising the Department of Health and Social Care on healthy eating policy in England. You can find her on Instagram @nevenutrition.
 Watson, D., Draper, L., and Wills, W. (2020). The chimera of choice in UK food policy 1976-2018. British Food Journal, DOI 10.1108/BFJ-10-2020-0982.
 Turner, C. et al. (2018). Concepts and critical perspectives for food environment research: A global framework with implications for action in low- and middle-income countries. Global Food Security, 18:93-101 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2018.08.003.
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