The coronavirus pandemic could be the “wake up call that we need” to tackle Scotland’s obesity problem, a body that advises the Holyrood ministers has insisted.
Geoff Ogle, the chief executive of Food Standards Scotland, said the pandemic had highlighted the poorer outcomes in terms of health for those who are either overweight or obese.
Speaking as the organisation, which has a focus on improving the diet of Scots, launched its new five-year strategy, he added that Covid-19 “should be a clarion call for everybody to think about what we need to do in this area”.
Mr Ogle said: “There is no doubt that the change in Scotland’s diet has to be achieved and Covid is perhaps the wake-up call that we need.
“And if we don’t change Scotland’s diet now, when are we ever going to do it, given the information and the evidence we have seen with the impact of Covid?”
His comments came as campaigners at Cancer Research UK called on the newly elected SNP government to legislate to curb cut-price promotions on junk food.
Ministers had previously promised a Bill to ban multi-buy offers on these items – but this was paused last year after the coronavirus crisis hit Scotland.
Dr Gillian Purdon, the head of nutrition at Food Standards Scotland, confirmed the organisation would focus its efforts on this area “once the new government is in place”.
Meanwhile, public health expert, Professor Linda Bauld, insisted: “Urgent action is needed to make it easier for shoppers to make the healthiest choice when they do their weekly shop”.
Speaking on behalf of Cancer Research UK, the Edinburgh University professor said the new strategy from Food Standards Scotland was a “a step in the right direction in Scotland’s efforts to slim down”.
But she stressed: “To make a difference, the Scottish Government must introduce legislation to limit junk food price promotions.
“These offers are fuelling the nation’s obesity problem by encouraging people to stock up on snacks and sweets. It’s vital we tackle this as carrying too much weight is linked with 13 types of cancer.”
About two thirds of Scots were currently either overweight or obese, Dr Purdon said, adding that “this can increase the risk of many, many other diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, many types of cancer, heart disease and stroke”.
She also stated: “Obviously the impact of the pandemic has really brought into sharp focus that living with overweight and obesity is linked with poorer health outcomes from Covid-19, so it has sharpened our focus in this area.”
Dr Purdon said that monitoring showed that “our diet is too high in calories, fats, salt, sugar” – adding there had been “little change” in this situation over the last 17 years.
Food Standards Scotland chair, Ross Finnie, said: “We’ve all known for some time that being overweight and obese can lead to poor health, can lead to what we describe as underlying health conditions, but we all know, and this has been brought to us very starkly in this Covid pandemic, how underlying health conditions can make you very susceptible to the kind of horrible virus that has beset the nation over the past year.
“And that has accentuated the need for us to be looking at these underlying health conditions and, in the case of Food Standards Scotland, brings real impetus to our work on unhealthier diets.”
He accepted some people may have been “quite happily munching food that wasn’t the healthiest” during lockdowns – but said that “bullying people” to try to get them to change their eating habits “doesn’t work”.
However, he added: “We are entitled to remind people of just how susceptible those on unhealthier diets are to increasing their risk to other forms of disease, not just Covid.
“People got quite a shock at how people with underlying health conditions were hugely susceptible to Covid, so I think there is a message there that we have to be able to work on and develop, and show we can improve the nation’s health, and therefore improve their ability to enjoy their lives.”