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A practical and informative ‘livewell guide’ is preferable to prohibition

Sam Chandler
March 21, 2024

Health policy in the UK has taken a rather sharp prohibitionist turn in recent years, with the government increasingly willing to stifle the sale of unhealthy products through regulation. Cigarettes and disposable vapes will soon be effectively banned across the country, and crackdowns on junk food and energy drinks may soon follow.

Whilst these attempts to safeguard public health are well-meaning, they are unlikely to achieve lasting behavioural change. Policymakers’ efforts would be better spent making sure people have the requisite knowledge and skills to improve their lifestyles on their own.

One way to do this would be to release an updated version of the Eatwell Guide, a pictorial summary of the UK’s official dietary guidelines which replaced the Eatwell Plate in 2016. Indeed, a growing number of health experts are calling for a review of the Guide, which they argue is both scientifically outdated and limited in the advice it offers.

In November, former President of the Oral Health Foundation Dr Ben Atkins argued that many crucial topics have been left out entirely, such as the importance of oral health and its interconnection with diet and nutrition. He also pointed out that the equivalent model in the US, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA), is reviewed and updated every five years – the Eatwell Guide is now 8 years old.

To fix this, Dr Atkins recommends introducing a regular review process similar to that in the US, with the ultimate goal of expanding “both the scope and the quality of the information on offer to the public”. This would undoubtedly be a positive step forward, but simply offering better quality guidance may not be enough.

According to Dr Maria Papavergos, also known as ‘The Lifestyle Dentist’, equally important as telling people what a healthy diet consists of is illustrating how it can be implemented and why it is so important. In January, she advocated including a range of practical lifestyle tips in an updated Eatwell Guide – like switching from unhealthy snacks to more nutritious alternatives; reducing sugar intake to protect the teeth; and using appetite-suppressant products like sugar-free chewing gum between meals.

This kind of practical advice could be crucial for bridging the divide between advice and behaviour change – always a major challenge in public health policy. It would also help to hammer-home the message that human health is holistic, meaning neglect in one area of health tends to snowball into larger problems.

Indeed, this basic principle applies beyond oral health and nutrition. An updated Eatwell Guide could also offer advice on broader areas of health, such as how to start a new exercise regime; how to increase sleep quality; how to build better mental health through practices like mindfulness, and more.

By consolidating all this information into one place – perhaps under the guise of the UK’s first ‘Livewell Guide’ – policymakers could give the public a truly holistic guidebook for human health which would help them to live happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives.

Of course, simply offering quality lifestyle advice would be no guarantee that people will start to make better choices about their health. Yet, as many critics of prohibition argue, neither can an outright ban. After all, whilst stern regulation may curb consumption of specific products, it does little to prevent other unhealthy substances taking their place.

Whilst stern regulation may curb consumption of specific products, it does little to prevent other unhealthy substances taking their place Quote

For example, coffee and chocolate could easily replace energy drinks as the go-to source of caffeine and sugar for teens following a potential ban, and already there are several equally unhealthy alternatives poised to step into the vacuum left by cigarettes. What’s more, attempts to shut down legal, regulated access to such products tends to fuel the expansion of the black market – suggesting that attempts to curb unhealthy habits on the supply side are often ineffective at reducing overall levels of demand.

Rather than playing regulatory whack-a-mole with whatever product has been dubbed ‘villain of the month’, policymakers would do more good by focusing on how to empower people to make more informed choices about their health.

It’s time to place autonomy for personal health back in the hands of the real stakeholders: the public. An accessible and regularly updated Livewell Guide, with a strong focus on practical tips for how and why to make positive lifestyle changes, would be an excellent start.

Sam Chandler Headshot scaled

Sam Chandler is a public affairs professional and political commentator with Young Voices UK.

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