Tackling the root causes of obesity

Helping people achieve or maintain a healthier weight is complex. Most of the adult population in England is overweight or obese and, while the majority of the younger generation remain a healthy weight, it is not the case for every child – particularly those living in our more deprived areas.

Individuals and families are the heartbeats of local communities and this gives local government an important role. We can only tackle obesity if it becomes everybody’s business and is prioritised and embedded in everything we do.

The root causes of obesity exist all around us – where we live, work and play, and where the food available and the built environment often make it difficult to make healthier lifestyle choices.

A growing body of evidence shows the need for a ‘whole systems’ approach to these issues. Obesity is a complex and multifaceted challenge, which is why we need to create environments and places that promote healthier lives. But how do councils put whole-systems working into practice?

The focal point of the latest edition of Public Health England’s (PHE) professional digital resource, Health Matters, is a newly published guide on taking a whole systems approach to obesity. This guide is the culmination of four years of co-development work with local authorities, PHE, the Association of Directors of Public Health, and the LGA.

This set of tools, delivered and researched by Leeds Beckett University, is the product of a number of local authorities piloting and testing it across the country, and was discussed at the LGA’s ‘Healthy weight, healthy future: making child obesity everybody’s business’ conference in July.

The tools include a practical ‘how to’ guide, which enables local councils to start creating their own local whole-systems approaches to promoting healthy weight, aligning with a ‘health in all policies’ approach.

The guide is designed to support councils and their local systems partners, including NHS, business, communities and the voluntary sector. It translates aspects of systems science and learning from national and international experience. It can help councils, whatever their starting point, to think about and deliver action to promote a healthier community.

But there’s a second, equally important story here – of co-production. Local authorities were pivotal in developing and testing the whole approach. Four original pilot councils – a county, a unitary, a London borough and a shire district – co-developed the guide.

Seven further councils tested it and many others reviewed it and gave feedback. An advisory group provided expert support throughout the programme. Our thanks go to all these partners for their invaluable time and expertise.

This is a new way of working for some places and it requires commitment, drive and, importantly, local political buy-in. Complex issues, like obesity, require sustained and systemic action from systems leaders. This is essential to support implementation and enable councils to work differently and test new approaches that work for local people.

There are different interpretations of what systems thinking is and different approaches to doing it. This is just the start of the journey and together, we need to continue to test, learn, adapt and evaluate the approach.

The latest edition of PHE’s Health Matters was due to be published on 25 July and focuses on taking a whole systems approach to obesity, see www.gov.uk

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