Willpower, WHSmith and WHY, WHY, WHY Can’t We Work Together?

I have watched, with interest, the #WHSugar campaign by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. You may have seen his social media driven efforts to cajole and then shame WHSmith into removing the racks of sugary, high cal temptations from check outs. It’s bad enough having those…but when you are actively encouraged to buy a huge bar of chocolate for £1 when all you want to do is get a newspaper, it’s akin to drug-pushing. Am I over-reacting? I don’t think so when every day in hospital I see the health problems that obesity is causing….and every day as tax-payers we are trying to keep the NHS afloat despite the lifestyle-related diseases that it is now having to treat.

WHSmith aren’t alone, of course. I wrote, 4 years ago, about the scourge of Costa and other high street coffee and fast food chains in our very hospitals. Promoting high-cal muffins along super-sized cream-topped drinks – together containing over 1/3 of our daily calorie needs. I think things are slowly improving there since NHS England has supposedly stopped the promotion of high fat, high sugar foods in hospital foyers …and I see the a few more bananas and apples tucked in between the other options. Hospital outlets have also been nicely asked to reduce the sales of sugary drinks….but they were still in abundance last time I looked. It hasn’t really gone far enough.

And there are countless other food manufacturers and retailers who are playing their part in all of this. It may be by producing over-sized portions – yes, even if you do call them ‘share-bags’ or ‘duos,’ we all know they get eaten by just one person! Or only showing in the tiniest of writing that the recommended portion is just 1/5 of that packet of salty snacks. The cinema complexes who have made us feel it’s necessary to take a bin size box of popcorn and a huge fizzy drink to every film. And, of course, the supermarkets who focus their 2-for-1 offers on high fat, high sugar snacks that tempt you as you walk in the door. Or stock the cartoon-covered sugary cereals at kids’ eye level so they can snare them in the marketing web too. Though, I’m glad to see that most of the supermarkets, at least, have removed their check-out chocolate racks.

Surely, though, it is up to the consumer to make the choice between these foods and the healthier options. Yes, ideally. But, get real! If I am tired, stressed and hungry and someone is offering me chocolate at the checkout, it’s hard to resist. Willpower isn’t limitless and isn’t invincible. Plus, we are all inherently a little bit lazy or simply in a rush most of the time. So, we grab the easiest food option – and that is almost always the less-than-healthy choice. We need help to stay on track…please!

If we are going to succeed in turning the tide of obesity, we all need to be working together. We need WHSmith, Costa and more to stop chasing profits and start caring for customers. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they really took on board the voluntary codes of conduct, the responsibility deals or just listened to their conscience? But sadly, it seems, profits come above all. So, it’s over to the government to get out of the pockets of the food industry and start insisting that everywhere we go, ‘healthy’ is the easier and most attractive choice.

Yes, we’ve supposedly stopped the outright promotion of high fat, high sugar food in hospitals – but that’s lame. We can do much more. We need to actively promote fresh, nutritious food – not processed products that are harmful, high-cal and hopelessly low in fibre and other nutrients. And with hospitals taking their role seriously as health promoters, not just disease treaters, we need everyone else to follow suit. Working together we can make a change to our lifestyles. And that means a much brighter future for us all.