Why does the UK Government’s obesity advisor dish out useless advice?

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Woman’s Hour is an hour-long radio show on the BBC’s Radio 4 station. On Tuesday, I was invited onto the show to discuss weight loss. The item centred around the plight of Sue Lyons – an obese lady who has (like millions of others) failed to control her weight through ‘dieting’. Sue recounts a commonly-heard story of yo-yo dieting and fluctuating weight. The other guests asked to contribute to the discussion were life coach Sue Thomason and Dr Susan Jebb, chief advisor to the UK Government on obesity. You can listen to the item here.

Dr Jebb was first to comment, and the presenter Jane Garvey was quick to point out that her recommendations were essentially to do what Sue had tried (and failed at) before. For my part, I attempted to explain why ‘eating less and exercising more’ generally destines would-be slimmers to failure. This is a personal view, but my overwhelming impression from Dr Jebb was that she could only trot out the tired conventional wisdom about weight loss and the need to find a plan Sue could stick to, without ever considering why individuals can’t stick to ‘diets’ or make them work.

Is this the best the British Government can do in terms of weight loss advice? I suspect many will feel somewhat let down.

I am quite-often asked why someone like Dr Jebb would continue to persist to spout the usual rhetoric regarding weight loss despite the fact it clearly does not work, and that plenty of evidence exists to show this too. That is not really a question for me to answer, but for her.

However, it occurs to me that one reason why Dr Jebb would take the line that she does is because, to be frank, it pays her to do so. Here, for example, is an excerpt from a declaration of Dr Jebb’s conflicts on interest from a paper she published in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

SAJ [Susan Jebb] is a member of Scientific Advisory Boards for Coca-Cola, Heinz, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Kellogg’s.

This does not mean that Dr Jebb is corrupt. But it also should not stop us asking questions about the independence of someone who hold considerable sway in terms of health policy.

It should also perhaps be noted that another ‘acknowledgement’ in the paper referred to above tells us that Dr Jebb:

[sits] on government advisory boards that also include food industry members.


How does look to you? To me it looks like our Government and its chief advisor on obesity have a unhealthily cosy relationship. Some may know that the British health minister Andrew Lansley has been criticised for partnering with food companies in an effort to crack our obesity. Talk about getting the fox to guard the hen coup.

The Government set up an expert advisory group on obesity, chaired by Dr Jebb. Many members of which were publicly critical of the Government’s alliance with the food industry. What did the UK Government do? It disbanded the group near the end of last year.

Though we’re informed that one member of the group would be retained to advise the Government. Guess who?

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