Eating fat in the east of London
Taking away obesity
Research conducted at City University London suggests that the number of take-away outlets in East London has a negative impact on public health and has helped influence a High Court decision on council planning.
Obesity and fast food
With obesity on the rise and junk food in the spotlight, City's researchers have undertaken a series of studies to investigate how the prevalence of fast food outlets in deprived areas impacts upon teenagers' diets.
The Centre for Food Policy research suggests that there may be a need for intervention to support healthy eating. The City researchers have made number of suggestions, ranging from subsidised meals through to improved council planning.
The study, conducted with Tower Hamlets Council and funded by Tower Hamlets Primary Care Trust, was carried out by a team of researchers which included Professor Martin Caraher, Sue Lloyd and Tim Madelin.
Mapping the problem
The City team mapped all the fast food outlets in Tower Hamlets relative to local schools, investigated secondary school food policies, observed student behaviour and undertook focus groups in order to understand the impact of fast-food outlets on school students' diets.
They found that the number of fast food outlets in the area was well above average and that youngsters were often choosing unhealthy options due to cost and convenience.
"In the borough there are 627 fast food outlets, newsagents and groceries providing a ratio of 41.8 junk food outlets to every school, well above the national average ratio of 25 outlets per school," says Professor Caraher.
Once they had determined the number of fast food outlets and looked at how and why they were frequented by students, the researchers sampled the food and modelled the impact of the nutrient intake from one, two and three take-away meals a week on the diet of a 14 year old.
Determining the impact
Professor Caraher says that the nutritional analysis suggests that the fast food on offer could have a negative impact on the dietary health of the local population.
"Even three meals a week from fast food outlets can account for up to 25 per cent of your estimated average requirement for energy for the whole week as well as being high in saturated fat and salt.
"While a number of national chains now have healthy options and have reduced the amount of fat, salt and sugar, the fact remains that if you are eating at a fast food outlet you are ceding some of your control over your diet.
"There is clearly a need for action to support take-away outlets to provide healthier alternatives and to help young people and parents understand how the diet choices that they are making are impacting on their health."
Tackling the problem
Based on the research, City researchers have made a number of recommendations including:
- The regulation of fast foods by way of restricting opening times, regulating the food sold and the prices
- Providing incentives/encouragement to eat healthy food, including free school lunches and healthy food subsidies
- Undertaking a social marketing campaign to overcome perceived barriers to eating healthy food
- Shaping emerging local development plans to enable spatial planning to manage the location and quantum of fast food outlets in the Borough, particularly near schools.
In a new development, planning permission granted to a fast food outlet wanting to open near a school was quashed by the High Court, which ruled that councillors should take into account the health implications of such businesses.
Professor Caraher says that the ruling demonstrates the value of the research in informing regulation and policy by providing a basis for action.
"This is a landmark decision that has demonstrated that councils can lawfully make planning decisions on fast food outlets while taking into account the wider public health implications."
"We hope that the implications spread beyond East London and will positively influence Council decision-making across the UK."
Watch Professor Caraher's lecture Food poverty and inequality: The growth of hunger in the UK