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Food Waste & Obesity - UK Epidemic on more than One Scale

by Tony Mottram(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 222 - May 2015

How supermarket offers and US-style restaurant portions is contributing to expanding waistlines; whilst buckling the knees of waste management facilities in the UK at the same time. 

Food Waste Garbage

Ever since definitions of a ‘healthy’ bodyweight changed in the 1990s, the world seems to be facing an obesity epidemic. The World Health Organisation (WHO) convened an expert consultation in Geneva that formed the basis for a report that defined obesity - not merely as a coming social catastrophe, but as an "epidemic". The word ‘epidemic’ is crucial when it comes to making money out of obesity, because once it is an epidemic, it is a medical catastrophe. And if it is medical, someone can supply a ‘cure’. This article explores the connections between obesity in adults and food waste in the UK.

Experts predict that the number of obese people in the UK by 2030 will reach the 26 million mark, which equates to more than a third of the population;  the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is calling for action from companies to tackle the problems associated with over-eating.

It’s a change in focus for health bodies that have previously put the emphasis on individuals to control their food intake. The cost of food being wasted in the UK, from the hospitality and food service sector alone, was estimated at £2.5billion per year in 2011, according to recycling charity WRAP. They predict the bill will rise to £3billion by 2016.

But how do we connect obesity with rising levels of food waste? Surely, the less we buy, the less we waste, or is it the more we eat means the less we waste? We live in a consumer world; food is not about survival it’s a social interaction, it’s about money… manufacturers and retailers make it, consumers spend it.

The weekly shop is not about getting the essentials; we are bombarded with value promotions (BOGOF’s [Buy one, get one free], ‘2for1s, Eat for Free etc.) and we’ve all bought them because they are visible in every supermarket, convenience store, and restaurant up and down the country.  The retailer model is clear: attract customers, increase basket spend and retain customers. The big supermarkets do this with vigour; value offers are a good way to sell off excess stock rather than write it off the balance sheet as waste.

Marketing is widening the waist line of this country. The manufacturers are trying to achieve a target of growth, the retailers are buying in a way to reduce unit cost and because we are in austere times, the consumer wants a ‘good deal’. When we join the pieces together it can be clearly seen how the food industry has a direct impact on consumer behaviour and subsequently their waist lines. Of course there are many other factors affecting Obesity, but this conundrum does impact on the increased amount of food being consumed and consigned as waste.

According to stats on rising obesity levels AND stats on food waste, we as a nation are guilty of both. I wonder how many people (hand on heart) can honestly say they have never picked up an out-of-date ready meal or pack of fruit or veg, and thrown them away (still in their pristine packaging which will undoubtedly appear in landfill) because we just didn’t get round to eating them. The deal doesn’t feel so good in this instance does it? Or similarly, I wonder how many of us were brought up to finish everything on our plate (did somebody mention austerity?).

Obesity Measuring Waistline

So, back to the obesity ‘epidemic’ – there are many theories as to why as a nation, we are getting fatter, year on year. Some research suggests that regional areas have a hand in the causes, meaning they may be prone to higher fat diets - derived from times when the main employment was industrial and very physical. But given that the industrial revolution ended some time ago and many jobs now do not demand the same physical effort, we must look to other theories to try and fully understand the problem.

Speaking to Sky News in September, Jenny Morris, Policy Officer at CIEH, said portion sizes in the UK were simply “too big”.

“It seems obvious to me, that an easy solution is to only produce the amount of food that is going to be consumed or that is needed” she said.

”I think that it is business that needs to lead on it because it is business that is in control. It hasn't always been the focus up until now.”

Another worry for the agenda is that of farmers who produce for supermarkets: an estimated 30 per cent of his crop will be rejected for one reason or another (knobbly carrots, bent cucumbers). And so if 30 per cent of what we buy ends up in landfill, this suggests that considerably less than half the food produced is actually eaten. It doesn’t matter whether it is ribs, burgers or broccoli, pizza, curries or potatoes; here is the closing fact: more food than we need means expansion in either waist line or waste disposal - but will generally be both.

There isn’t one clear solution to reduce obesity or to halt the increasing volume of food waste being created. This paper isn’t meant to be the answer, but hopefully it will feed the debate. The message is easily digestible; we need to reduce Waists and Waste, otherwise more funding will be needed to treat the burden food is creating in our society.

Food Waste Facts:

Every year in the UK 18 million tonnes of food end up in landfill.

  • Approx 1/3 from producers/ supply chain, 1/3 from retail and 1/3 from households;
  • Annual value : £23 BILLION [and rising rapidly due to soaring prices];
  • Massive environmental damage and landfill costs to dispose;
  • Many people, groups and families on low incomes/ poverty unable to afford ‘healthy’ foods [and rising rapidly due to soaring prices/ fuel costs etc];
  • ‘Food Poverty’ and widespread poor health resulting / contributing dually in malnutrition and obesity levels;
  • Disposal costs to business passed on to consumers in higher prices, landfill costs in local taxes – less income.


Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet

Earlier this year the Health & Social Care Information Centre (hscic) produced a report on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet.

Key Facts

  • The proportion of adults with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) decreased between 1993 and 2012 from 41.0 per cent to 32.1 per cent among men and from 49.5 per cent to 40.6 per cent among women;
  • There was a marked increase in the proportion of adults that were obese between 1993 and 2012 from 13.2 per cent to 24.4 per cent among men and from 16.4 per cent to 25.1 per cent among women;
  • In 2012, 67 per cent of men and 55 per cent of women aged 16 and over met the new recommendations for aerobic activity. 26 per cent of women and 19 per cent of men were classed as inactive;
  • While overall purchases of fruit and vegetables reduced between 2009 and 2012, consumers spent 8.3 per cent more on fresh and processed vegetables and 11.7 per cent more on fresh and processed fruit;
  • In 2012-13, there were 10,957 Finished Admission Episodes (FAEs) in NHS hospitals with a primary diagnosis of obesity among people of all ages. This is 6.6 per cent less admissions than in 2011-12 (11,736), although this is almost nine times higher than 2002-03 (1,275). This is based on inpatient data only. Inconsistencies in recording practice vary over time between hospitals as to whether some episodes are recorded as outpatient or inpatient;

Figures from Overseas Development Institute:

Graph Overweight and Obese Adults with BMI over 25

Acknowledgements, with Thanks  


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About Tony Mottram

Tony Mottram is the Commercial Director from GPT Waste Management, the largest UK independent provider of waste management solutions and sustainable waste services which continually demonstrates operational efficiency as well as financial savings via their innovative approach to waste management systems and routes to processes. GPT Waste offers a basic Waste Review Service free of charge.  Find out how they can help your business deal more effectively with your waste: GPT Waste may be contacted on Tel: 0844 854 5000;

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