Junk Food Olympics: Why we must tackle the obesity crisis now

Während die Athleten bei den Olympischen Spielen um Medaillen ringen, kämpft Großbritannien mit einem viel größeren Problem: Ein Drittel seiner Kinder ist übergewichtig – dass McDonald's, Coca-Cola und Cadbury die Spiele sponsern, hilft da nicht.

In just five days, the eyes of the world will be on the UK as the Olympic Games come to London. The greatest sporting event on earth – a celebration of elite athletic achievement – is set to attract a television audience of four billion for the opening ceremony alone.

Spectators will not only see the world's finest sportsmen and -women fighting it out to win Olympic medals. They will also be exposed to one of the biggest branding and advertising exercises ever seen.

There has been much discussion and debate about the fact that McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Cadbury are the main sponsors of the Games. Whilst sponsorship is crucial for an event of the size and on the scale of the Olympics, personally I think it sends the wrong message when an event that celebrates the very best sporting achievements is sponsored by companies contributing to the obesity problem and unhealthy habits.

Athletic people at McD? It has been well-publicised that the only restaurant allowed to sell branded food in the Olympic Park will be McDonald's. The Olympic Park is also home to the largest McDonald's in the world, seating no less than 1,500 customers.

These brands are using the Olympics to be associated with medals and svelte, fit athletes – they don't want us to think of fat, unhealthy people when we think of their products. And this sort of sponsorship and advertising clearly works – if it did not, they would not spend the vast amount of money that they do.

I'm not alone in questioning the fit between junk food and elite sport sponsorship. The IOC President Jacques Roggue last week admitted there were „question marks“ concerning the sponsorship of the Games by McDonald's and Coca-Cola and the „amount of sugar and obesity that is costing the NHS (National Health Service, das öffentliche Gesundheitssystem Großbritanniens, Anm.) millions“. In fact, there are estimates that the direct cost of the obesity to the NHS alone is around £4,2 billion a year.

And it is the problem of obesity – and its associated medical issues of increased risk of high blood pressure, heart diseases, type 2 diabetes and some kinds of cancer – which is my real concern.

Every third child overweight. As a children's doctor, I'm particularly worried about childhood obesity and in particular the effect that junk food advertising and the unhealthy environment are having on children. The UK has the highest levels of childhood obesity in Europe, with nearly a third of children overweight or obese by the age of nine. Based on current trends, this figure will rise to a percentage of nearly 50 percent by 2020.

Research shows that children's food choices are heavily influenced by advertising. A recent survey of 1000 parents by the Children's Food Trust found that many parents were pestered to buy poor food – with two thirds (65 percent) saying there should be a ban on television advertising of high fat, sugar and salt products before 9pm.

But sponsorship and advertising is just one part of the problem contributing to an environment that means junk food is readily available and easy to consume. Consider the relative expense of fruit and vegetables compared to cheaper, less healthy alternatives.

There is also the fact that many schoolchildren in the UK are skipping breakfast, leading to snacking (often on chocolate bars and crisps) – and that many children are not taught to cook at school and are unable to prepare a healthy meal.

There is also a growing trend towards people being less active. A recent paper published in the Lancet journal estimated that physical inactivity was responsible for 5.3 million of the 57 million deaths worldwide in 2008 including six to ten percent of cases of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancer.

In terms of solutions, Governments across the Western world have long grappled with what works and what doesn't. Methods range from taxes on fatty foods (currently being implemented in Denmark) through to banning TV advertising of junk food prior to the watershed (das ist der Zeitpunkt, ab dem Filme und Serien für Erwachsene im Fernsehen ausgestrahlt werden dürfen – üblicherweise neun Uhr abends, Anm.) as proposed by Scotland's Chief Medical Officer recently.

Just as there are many complex reasons why individuals may become overweight or obese, so there is not one solution for combating it. Indeed if there was a magic fix, there's no doubt it would have been found by now.

A multi-facet approach. That's why earlier this year, the group representing all doctors in the UK – the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges – launched an unprecedented campaign to look into what can be done to tackle the obesity crisis. We've spent the last three months collecting evidence from across the healthcare sector and beyond – including the public – on effective measures than can be taken by doctors, other clinicians, individuals, industry, education and Government to manage this problem. We're casting the net widely and inviting written and oral submissions of evidence from a whole range of organisations and individuals.

Acknowledging that we're likely to need an approach that crosses many different areas, we're looking broadly at the following aspects:
•Action that can be taken by individuals – such as diet, exercise, positive parenting.
•The environment – looking at advertising, food labelling, sponsorship, the built environment, local authority policies and facilities.
•Clinical interventions – exploring the effective interventions that clinicians can make on preventing and tackling obesity.
•Fiscal measures – including taxation, minimum pricing, corporate or personal incentives.
•Education – exploring the roles of nurseries, schools, further and higher education and public information in tackling obesity.

The steering group, comprising representatives from across the UK medical profession, will collate the findings and produce a report, due to launch this autumn. We'll be making clear recommendations on what we believe needs to be done if we're to prevent generation after generation falling victim to obesity-related illnesses and death.

Our work certainly doesn't stop there. We're absolutely determined that this isn't just another report that gathers dust and has little practical impact. So we'll be campaigning hard on the key areas that we believe, based on the evidence, will make a real difference – and taking our message far and wide; to Government, industry, schools and beyond.

A much bigger battle. So whilst athletes are fighting it out for medals over the next few weeks, let's not forget that in the streets surrounding the Olympic Park, thousands of people are fighting a much bigger battle. Children in the Olympic Boroughs have deteriorating life and health prospects according to a recent study by the London Health Observatory. It reveals that in four of the six boroughs, six to 12-year-olds are less physically active than their peers elsewhere in the capital.

We owe it to these children – and to the future health of the nation – to ensure that the lasting image of the London 2012 Games is not one of fast food chains and convenience food, but of athletic achievement. And that the legacy of the Games is to provide a stepping stone to combat what will soon become the greatest public health challenge that the Western world has ever seen.

zum Autor

Terence Stephenson ist seit April Vorsitzender der Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, der Vereinigung der britischen Medizinhochschulen und De-facto-Interessenvertretung der Ärzte im Vereinigten Königreich. Der praktizierende Kinderarzt war zuvor Dekan der medizinischen Fakultät an der Universität von Nottingham.
Als Vorsitzender der Akademie hat Stephenson vergangene Woche mit seiner Kritik an „Fettmacher“-Unternehmen als Sponsoren der Olympischen Spiele für Aufsehen gesorgt. Den vorliegenden Text hat er exklusiv für die „Presse am Sonntag“ verfasst.

("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 22.07.2012)

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