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The Battle Against the Obesity Crisis Must Start in Schools

The number of people living with diabetes in the UK has exceeded 4 million for the first time, according to new figures released by Diabetes UK.

Chris Askew, the Chief Executive of Diabetes UK, has suggested that a culture of snacking and the lack of available school-based nutrition education in the past is partly to blame on today’s diabetes epidemic and resulting so-called ‘obesity crisis.’

He said that middle-aged people in Britain who were never taught about the importance of healthy eating habits in their youth were struggling to eat well in today’s consumer environment where junk food is so readily available on the high street and two-for-one confectionary deals are on offer at every checkout.

Naturally, a lack of willpower cannot solely be blamed on rising levels of obesity and people should, of course, be responsible for making better healthy eating decisions themselves. But part of that process involves enabling people to make those decisions in the first place.

Stressing the importance of schools teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating habits early on, Mr Askew said: “Children are incredibly receptive to these messages and building those habits for life is crucial and arguably something that my generation have missed out on.”

A Significant Threat

He added that a sugar tax, restrictions on the marketing of junk food to children and clear and consistent food labelling rules were all needed to tackle obesity, a key risk factor for Type 2 diabetes and “a really significant threat to the nation’s health”.

There are now 4.05 million people with diabetes in the UK - the equivalent of one in 12 British adults, with the ever-growing cost to the NHS now estimated at £10bn a year. This includes 3.5 million people who have been diagnosed, a rise of almost 120,000 compared to the previous year, and an increase of 65 per cent over the past decade. There are believed to be nearly 550,000 people with undiagnosed Type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes accounts for around 90 per cent of cases and is strongly linked to excess weight. Type 1 diabetes in contrast, is not preventable. If not managed properly, Type 2 diabetes can have devastating complications including, heart disease, stroke, blindness, kidney disease and amputation.

A Tax on Sugar?

Obesity, which has been called the ‘new smoking’ by Simon Stevens, the NHS Chief, now affects a quarter of young children, a third of 11-15 year-olds and two-thirds of adults. Treating obesity and its consequences currently costs the NHS £5.1bn every year.

A lack of exercise is naturally a factor behind the nation’s burgeoning waistline but poor diet and - in particular excess sugar consumption - is by far the main culprit. Cutting down on sugar is the single most effective strategy for shedding the pounds and limiting the risk of diabetes, which currently accounts for 24,000 premature deaths a year in the UK.

Following Public Health England’s (PHE) damning ‘Sugar Reduction: The Evidence for Action’ report on the health effects of excess sugar, the Government has come under increasing pressure to introduce a sugar tax and crack down on unhealthy food marketing targeted at children.

The report makes the case for a tax of 10-20 per cent on sugary foods and drinks and sets out eight recommendations it says are urgently needed to reduce sugar consumption, warning that 12-15 per cent of our average daily energy intake is now from sugar instead of the recommended five per cent.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which advises PHE on nutrition and related health issues, says that sugar should account for no more than 5 per cent of daily calories consumed, and both children and adults should minimise their consumption of sugar-laden soft drinks. PHE believe that around £500m could be saved from the NHS every year within 10 years if people did both these things.

Expert Opinion

The Government needs to face up to the gravity of Britain’s obesity problem. If the Health Secretary accepted the advice of two-thirds of GPs and his most senior public health officials and insisted on a sugar tax, he could save tens of thousands of lives and tens of billions of pounds.

Whether it involves tough legislative measures such as a tax on sugar, heaping pressure on food manufacturers to cut levels of harmful ingredients, advertising bans on sugar-rich foods to children, or simply convincing consumers and especially the young to eat better, action, particularly in regard to an effective childhood obesity strategy, is urgently needed.

The complications associated with uncontrolled blood sugar levels put enormous pressure on the NHS and the total number of diabetes-related amputations continues to rise. This is a huge problem. At present, almost 140 patients are undergoing an amputation every week as a direct result of diabetes-related complications such as foot ulcers.

People with diabetes are much more prone to developing problems with their feet such as Charcot Foot due to the damaging effects raised blood sugars can have on sensation and blood circulation. Most of these problems however, are entirely preventable with good personal foot care.

As part of their drive to combat diabetes, the Government needs to ensure diabetic patients are getting the regular foot checks they need and that good quality care is available to all and not subject to any kind of postcode lottery.

The need for the NHS to commit to providing adequate care and diabetes education across the UK is now more urgent than ever. Having said that, obesity is an entirely avoidable problem and preventing people from becoming fat in the first place must be a priority over treating them once they have diabetes.

Paul Sankey is a senior clinical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon in London.

If you have suffered an amputation as a result of a delay in managing a diabetes-related complication such as a foot ulcer due to medical negligence, call Slater and Gordon for a free consultation on 0800 916 9049 or contact us online.

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