Understanding Obesity Prevention and the Impact of Place-Making

01 March 2019

Today the majority of the Scottish population have excess weight. 29% of adults and 13% of children aged 2 to 15 years old have obesity, and even more are overweight and at high of risk of obesity later in life. While figures in Scotland are no longer rising as in previous decades, alarmingly we still have some of the highest rates of obesity in the world.

The challenges of the obesity epidemic are complex. Fuelling the problem is the availability of cheap energy-dense, ultra-processed food and drinks, and a built environment that causes physical inactivity and sedentary lifestyle. Our environment influences our behaviour every day, considerably impacting on our health.

In July 2018, Scottish Government published A Healthier Future - Scotland’s Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan and A More Active Scotland: Scotland’s Physical Activity Delivery Plan. The UK Government published Childhood Obesity: a plan for action Chapter 2. These documents recognise obesity as a pressing public health and policy concern, and include a wide range of measures to tackle the issue. Proposals, such as tackling junk food advertising and restricting promotions, move beyond traditional education and behaviour change strategies, to take important early steps to change the environment around us. Individual-focused changes are necessary in obesity prevention, however must be supported by actions that bring about wider changes if we are to make an impact3.

Local authorities and communities can respond to the obesity challenge through licensing, planning and shaping the local environment.

They can ensure access to safe, attractive and well-maintained greenspace and facilities which can help to increase the opportunities for outdoor play, walking, cycling, and physical activity. Reducing the convenience of driving short distances, increasing walking and cycling in our neighbourhoods, towns and cities, and improving connectivity between the places where we spend most of our time can support individuals to lead more active everyday lives. Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of obesity, serious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and improve mental health.

Planning and licensing can also help to limit the availability of unhealthy food outlets. The evidence suggests increased exposure to fast food outlets increases the likelihood of weight gain, and the availability of these is higher in our more deprived areas. 32% of adults living in these areas are obese, compared to just 20% of those living in the least deprived areas.

The effect of the food environment around schools on diet is complex, however schools are well-placed to ensure children both eat and learn about healthy foods and work with local authorities to shape a healthy environment, including the control of junk food outlets nearby1011. 77% of pupils, in a survey of Scottish schools, said they bought food or drink beyond the school gate at least twice a week, with chips (purchased by 26.1%) top of the menu16. The number of young people leaving school to buy food and drink during the school day increased to more than 90% of pupils at some of the most deprived schools included in the study16.

Significant action is needed across society to ensure that our environments encourage healthier behaviours and address weight-related health inequalities prevalent in our communities. Planning has a critical role to play in preventing overweight and obesity. Investing in planning and place-making can have a positive impact on our behaviour, and contributes to protecting and improving our health.
We need to act now to create environments that enable healthy food and physical activity choices for everyone.

Read this article in the Scottish Planner, the Journal of RTPI Scotland, (Spring Issue, 177, April 2019) on-line.