Geoff Ogle: Explore every avenue to change the nation's diet

The Scottish diet shows little signs of improving; in fact, it hasn't improved for at least 17 years.

Unhealthy takeaway food is a particular problem. Picture: PA

As a nation we still buy too many foods we simply don’t need like confectionery, cakes, biscuits, pastries, savoury snacks and sugary drinks which contribute 20 per cent of the calories and 50 per cent of the sugar we purchase.

Last month we published an updated situation report: “The Scottish Diet: it needs to change 2018” and it made for stark reading. Our research shows two-thirds of adults in Scotland remain overweight or obese and almost a third of children living in Scotland are still overweight or obese.

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Our report revealed that while people have been reducing the amount of sugar they get from sugary drinks, there has been no reduction in the overall amount of sugar we buy because of the increased purchase of sugar in other foods. The total sugar we have purchased in breakfast spreads, for example, increased by 50 per cent between 2010 to 2016.

The time for change is now and we are working hard to combat the growing strain on the economy and health services. The solution will not be a simple one and we need greater industry and government collaboration to drive improvements in our diet. Progress is already 
being made with the soft drinks levy, which begins this month and the UK government’s sugar reduction programme which started in March 2017, but we would like to see tougher measures on sugar across more products.

The amount of calories, sugars and fats still coming from discretionary foods is not sustainable. The health risks associated with being overweight and obese are worrying and unfortunately it might be too late to change for some people.

A healthy nation is important for a successful and sustainable economy and recent estimations put the cost of obesity as high as £4.6bn a year in Scotland.

There is some good news though. Public attitudes are changing, with 64 per cent of people in Scotland now saying they are concerned about our country’s unhealthy diet.

As much as 25 per cent of the calories we consume come from food and drink we eat outside the home or from home delivery. The Out of Home Sector has a key role to play in improving Scotland’s diet and needs to ensure it doesn’t lag behind other sectors such as retail and manufacturing, who have made serious efforts to improve the content of their products and the information they provide.

While change is needed, it could be argued that significant barriers remain in place which continue to prevent change. Purchasing trends in Scotland show three-quarters of confectionery is bought on price promotion.

As an evidence-based organisation, we have looked at a raft of scientific evidence which informs the basis for clear and consistent dietary advice, but that can be undermined by the rise of social media where many people go to get inaccurate and sometimes dangerous dietary advice. People have access to information at the touch of a button, which has contributed to many positive developments, but there often can be issues around the reliability of information.

It is important that we cut through some of the noise we encounter on these platforms and give Scotland not only the dietary advice which could improve health, but which Scotland deserves.

While we’re leading the way on diet and obesity at home, we also need to begin to cast our net wider.

This week we hosted a gathering of worldwide experts and representatives at a conference in Edinburgh with the title “Fresh Thinking on Food”. Tackling diet and obesity at home is our starting point but sharing our knowledge, experiences and comparing them with the challenges faced around the world, is equally invaluable. Scotland needs an effective and outward looking regulator which has influence on a worldwide scale so the good work we have already achieved is not wasted.

The conference covered four areas which are of major interest – diet and obesity, future food trends, crime and authenticity and food safety. All are vitally important if we are to maintain Scotland’s well-deserved reputation as the land of excellent food and drink.

For change to happen in Scotland, we need individuals, industry and government to work

Geoff Ogle is Chief Executive at Food Standards Scotland