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The tipping point - Time to tackle Scotland's poor diet and health

Monday (26th February) saw the publication of two new reports from Food Standards Scotland on the Scottish diet and retail food purchasing patterns in Scotland. These reports provide yet more evidence that we need to take actions that will make healthier choices easier for people to make.

The two reports published are:

Food Standards Scotland (2018) Monitoring retail purchase and price promotions in Scotland (2010 – 2016).

Food Standards Scotland (2018) The Scottish Diet: It needs to change. 2018 Update.

The reports show that the Scottish diet continues to be poor and our food shopping habits show no real improvement over the last several years. There is perhaps a glimmer of hope, in that public attitudes are changing. This should help provide support for bold and urgent action to be taken to tackle the health and weight of the population.

In terms of public attitudes:

  • 9 out of 10 people agree that obesity is a serious problem in Scotland.

  • 2 out of 3 people think that cafés and restaurants should display calories on their menus.

  • Half (49%) of the Scottish population would support banning promotions on unhealthy products.

  • 82% of people support action to place limits on levels of sugar, fat and salt in foods and drinks.

  • 9 out of 10 people think cheap, fast food is too readily available.

  • 82% of people think that reducing levels of obesity is a shared responsibility.

The fact is, that Scotland has been consistently missing its dietary goals for over 17 years. We eat too many calories, too much sugar, salt and fatty foods and not enough fruit, vegetables, fibre and oily fish. Although there has been a slight reduction in salt intake from 9g a day in 2006 to the latest figure of 7.8g a day (still more than the 6g a day goal). This reflects the success of the UK’s salt reduction programme (Wyness et al, 2012), although further work in salt reduction is still required.

Table: Scottish dietary goals and current intakes

Looking at food and drink purchasing patterns and price promotions between 2010 and 2016 it is clear that the balance of price promotions needs to be addressed. Although retail price promotions have recently decreased by around 3%, items purchased on price promotion in most retailers were generally skewed towards less healthy options. The exception was in the discounters where purchases on price promotion were similar between the healthier and less healthy categories, or in some cases were higher among the healthier categories (such as water, fruit and vegetables).

  • Many of the less healthy categories were purchased more frequently on promotion compared to the healthier categories.

  • We are buying 36% of our overall calories on price promotion (this can be up to 40% of purchases in some Scottish retailers).

  • We were encouraged to buy up to 74% of confectionary in 2016 on a price promotion.

  • Purchase of confectionery on promotion increased from 44% in 2010 to 48% in 2016.

  • A quarter (24%) of what we buy is of low nutritional value and not required for health (e.g. confectionery, cakes, biscuits, pastries, crisps, and sugary drinks)

A slightly positive finding is the continuous decrease in the purchase of regular soft drinks from 2010 to 2016 leading to an overall reduction in the purchase of sugar from soft drinks. However, there has been an increase in the sugar purchased from other foods such as confectionery, breakfast spreads, ice-cream and dairy desserts which cancels out, and actually exceeds the reduction in sugar purchased from regular soft drinks.

Alcoholic drinks are often high in calories, and it is estimated that men in Scotland who drink alcohol consume 1100 calories a week from alcohol and for women it is 810 calories per week. Putting calories on alcohol labels is likely to increase awareness among consumers and nudge behaviour.

Inequalities also remain with households in the 20% most deprived areas consuming more calories from confectionery, biscuits, sugary drinks and plain bread and a smaller proportion from fruit, vegetables and plain starchy carbohydrates compared with those in the least deprived areas. This means that those living in deprived areas generally have lower intakes of vitamins, minerals and wholegrains. These differences are reflected in the health of the population with around 32% of adults living in the most deprived areas being obese compared to just 20% of those in the least deprived areas.

With the change in public attitudes, more discussions taking place all over the country and government strategies being developed on the health and diet of the Scottish population, we seem to be reaching a tipping point. Scotland has the chance to take the lead on turning the trend of poor diet and health by taking bold and urgent action. Hopefully, the next Food Standards Scotland update report on the Scottish diet will be a more positive read.

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