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This time of the year is, at least in the UK, a time for new beginnings for many people. Perhaps after the festivities of Christmas and New Year people feel more motivated to live healthier lives. This month there is a campaign called, helpfully, JanUary - led by the National Obesity Forum which is aimed at encouraging people to “do something good for JanUary”. The obvious focus here is to persuade people to make a choice for a healthier lifestyle to reduce obesity in the UK, as well as giving them the information they need to help them live healthier.

What are some of the factors which affect people’s choices?

In 2014 Beat conducted a survey of over 18s who binge eat, compulsively overeat, feel they have emotional eating issues and are overweight, obese or struggling with their weight, and found that 88% of the respondents felt that they overeat for emotional reasons.

If we want to see sustainable change, perhaps psychological support needs to play a bigger part of weight loss programmes? If people can learn to manage their anxiety or stress, whatever it relates to, then the resultant emotional eating can also be better managed.

Something as simple as Mindfulness has been used successfully to change a person’s relationship to food, teaching them to tune in to bodily cues as well as emotional triggers. Using a holistic approach, looking at weight as part of the bigger picture of general health and wellbeing, may yield better results in the long-term.

In Greater Huddersfield, people with long-term conditions (LTCs) can use the SelfCareHub (MyHealthTools as it is known there) to address their physical and emotional health needs, using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques. Out of the top 10 challenges that people report, 7 are related to anxiety and stress which can often lead to overeating and poor health.

It may be free to go for a walk, but the truth is that finances also play a part in what choices people make about their lifestyle. People on low incomes who have very little ‘wriggle room’ in money often have to make hard decisions between making money stretch further and eating healthily.

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This especially affects people living in rural communities, where options are more limited than in urban areas. If people have a predictable income, it enables them to:

be less anxious and stressed about money; plan spending and reduce impulsive buying; increase purchasing power for fresh food and bulk buying; budget for gas/electricity to cook.

Many local authorities around the country have invested in the BetterOff platform, mainly as a way of combining benefits and employment into an easier system for people to deal with. They have recognised that if people are getting the right benefits, and have their money stopped less often, then they can focus more on finding and retaining employment.

What positive effect could this also have on people’s health?

The last 3 of the bullet points above are all factors in weight loss programmes and guides, but which are directly affected by income flow. There are a myriad of other ways in which finance affects health and the costs to the NHS, but it would take too long to go into them in this blog. Suffice it to say, health organisations stand to gain from people being supported to access the benefits they are entitled to.

Encouragingly, the NHS does recognise that a more holistic, person-centred approach is needed for LTCs. But could this approach also help people reduce obesity before they get to a stage where they are diagnosed with a LTC? Common sense says it would.

In the Beat survey mentioned earlier, of people who sought advice from their GP about being overweight only 21% of the respondents said that their emotional health was addressed. If we are looking for the “radical upgrade in prevention and public health” that NHS Five Year Forward View mentions, then let’s really think differently and dig down to what motivates people’s choices.

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