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Obesity and the environment – the impact of fast food

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We know overweight and obesity levels are higher in children from poorer neighbourhoods, and it’s concerning to see new analysis which shows that there are more fast food outlets in many of these deprived areas on average.

The chart below illustrates this association between density of fast food outlets and area level deprivation.


Popping to the local takeaway to pick up a meal is something that many of us enjoy but we’re eating out and buying takeaways more often, rather than this being seen as an occasional treat. In some ways, it is now the norm.

A fifth of adults and children eat takeaway meals at home once a week or more and 75% of people reported eating out or buying takeaway food in 2014 (compared to 68% in 2010).

Not all fast food is unhealthy but it can be high in calories, saturated fat and salt, plus low in fibre, fruit and vegetables – a recipe for trouble as we battle high levels of obesity in both children and adults.

So if we’re going to reduce obesity – a leading cause of ill health and premature death – we can’t ignore the environments that impact on the food choices we make.


Analysing the density of fast food outlets in England

In a new piece of research we’ve analysed ‘fast food’, covering a range of takeaway outlets like burger bars, kebab and chip shops and sandwich shops.

We found that the density of fast food outlets in local authorities varies across England ranging from 24 to 199 outlets per 100,000 population, most being independent companies with only one or two outlets.

Presenting this information is important because there’s a growing body of evidence on the association between exposure to fast food outlets and obesity, despite some studies showing conflicting results.

We can see a clear link between deprivation and the number of takeaways in an area, with the poorest areas of the country having far more takeaways than the richest areas.

We know from our health surveys that the prevalence of child overweight and obesity rises with deprivation whilst fruit and vegetable consumption falls.

Added to that, obese children living in more deprived areas are on average heavier, given their height, than obese children in less deprived areas.

Taking action at local and national level

Obesity is a complex problem that requires action across society including the food and drink industry, local and national government and the voluntary sector.

At a national level our social marketing campaigns and sugar, salt and calorie reduction of every day foods can make an impact, but just as important are local approaches which discourage sedentary behaviour and reduce easy access to calorie-dense food.

PHE briefings like ‘Regulating the growth of fast food outlets’, ‘Active travel’ and the Town and Country Planning Association's ‘Planning Healthy Weight Environments’ resource are designed to prompt local action, and our ‘whole systems’ work with Leeds Becket University is looking at new interventions and solutions.

It’s also encouraging to see examples of good local work like Bristol City Council’s project to introduce fast food outlet exclusion zones to limit takeaways around schools.

Projects like Bristol’s will complement PHE’s sugar and calorie reduction programme which will see us working with big retailers and manufacturers but will also focus on the ‘out of home’ sector.

Its first aim is to remove at least 20% of the sugar in key foods by 2020 but the programme will be extended next year to include calories, salt and saturated fat which are most relevant to the sorts of foods we buy from takeaways and fast food outlets.

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  1. Comment by Suliman posted on

    Useful blog. Has anyone done a literature review they can share in reference to "there’s a growing body of evidence on the association between exposure to fast food outlets and obesity, despite some studies showing conflicting results."

  2. Comment by sophia posted on

    really helpful thank you