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by Frances Bain, Nesta
28 February 2023
Associate Feature: Recipe for radical change

Illustration by Eva Bee for Nesta

Partner content

Associate Feature: Recipe for radical change

Walk down any High Street in Scotland or any supermarket aisle, wait for a bus, watch television, fish your phone from your pocket and scroll through your feed and you will be bombarded with adverts, deals, coupons and enticing images of food. Welcome to your food environment – it is everywhere you look.

Our diets are heavily influenced by the availability and convenience of food, by advertising prompts and by the information that surrounds us. It all shapes our opportunity to be healthy – and our lives are saturated with unhealthy influence.

We can see the effect of that influence in the damning statistics. In Scotland, 67% of adults are overweight or live with obesity – the highest figure of any UK nation and one that has grown dramatically over the last 30 years. Wealth is a factor in obesity too, with levels of obesity among the most deprived in Scotland higher than the least deprived. Obesity is now the leading cause of death in Scotland and is linked to 23% of deaths. The cost of obesity to NHS Scotland is estimated to be up to £600m a year and potentially more than £4bn to the wider economy in lost productivity.

The cost of obesity to our lives and to our wellbeing is enormous and it's clear we need to act. But food environments are complex. Our food choices are influenced by advertising, as well as by where and how we see products in shops and restaurants. Food that is high in fat, salt and sugar is often given prominence to lure us into a purchase. The availability, accessibility and affordability of food is also a major factor; what restaurants, takeaways, shops, cafes and pubs are in the area we live, the time we have to shop and cook and the money we have in our pockets to feed ourselves and our families.

Nesta is the UK’s innovation agency for social good. Our goal is to halve the prevalence of obesity across the UK by 2030, but there is no single silver bullet that can address such a severe crisis underpinned by complex factors. We need to combine a slew of measures, from community planning to advertising restrictions to requiring businesses to meet healthier sales targets, in order to stem the tide of unhealthy food in our diets.

Nesta has been working to understand more about what factors we can change to help improve our food environments. We’ve looked at the impact of calorie labelling on takeaway apps and identified foods that could be reformulated to reduce calorie content. We are conducting research with food outlets to understand the barriers they see to selling healthier products, testing the effects of different promotions with retailers and doing a deep dive on the economic and social costs to Scotland if we fail to deal with the obesity crisis. We are even working with Scotland's video games industry to create community-level digital food environments in order to communicate the varying effects of different policies.

The obesity crisis affects us all and as a society we need to take responsibility for repeated failure to deal with it by embracing radical new approaches. Reducing obesity is about saving lives and we are committed to building a robust evidence base that indicates the best ways to do that. It will need investment in layers of preventative measures, from how our food is made to how it is sold and the information we have about it. And that will require support and commitment from politicians and from industry – manufacturers, producers and retailers.

It will also need public support and that means a shift in how we understand and talk about the external and commercial influences on our diets. Improving our food environments is not about taking the joy or relish out of eating and drinking, nor is it about shaming or blaming people for what they eat. It is about reshaping what surrounds us so that high-quality, healthier food is available and viable for everyone to enjoy. 


Frances Bain is Nesta Scotland’s Health Lead.

To find out more about our work on reducing obesity visit

This article is sponsored by Nesta

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