Is the UK facing an obesity crisis?

Medical professionals, politicians and experts all agree that obesity is the major health issue facing the UK at the present time. Despite high levels of concern and awareness, the problem is getting rapidly worse. Debilitating and fatal health conditions that can be directly attributed to obesity include type 2 diabetes, several common strains of cancer, heart disease and strokes. With rising levels of obesity putting an increasing strain on the NHS and the economy overall, describing the situation as a crisis does not seem like an exaggeration.

How is obesity measured?

A person is considered to be clinically obese if their body mass index (BMI) is greater than 30. Although this way of measuring obesity is not perfect and has been criticised, it undoubtedly gives us at least an approximate idea of the scale of the problem, and can indicate when individuals need to address a weight issue. 

The Health Survey for England 2017 put adult obesity levels in England at 28.7%, with a further 35.6% considered overweight. In 2018 the World Health Organisation (WHO) stated that 28.1% of adults in the UK were obese. This year it was reported that 67% of UK men and 61% of UK women were overweight, while 27% of men and 30% of women were considered clinically obese.

What are the causes?

We may all think we know what causes obesity, but the actual facts can be complex. Genetics and lifestyle both play a part, and those with low incomes and/or living in low income communities are much more likely to be obese than those from better-off backgrounds. Access to healthy food and opportunities for exercise are often more difficult for those that really need it. The most pressing problem is tackling childhood obesity, as patterns of health are often established at a very young age, for better or worse.

Do we need to eat better or exercise more?

A healthy diet and appropriate levels of exercise are both essential in order to avoid obesity, but of the two, diet is by far the most important. It is still true that you are what you eat, and eating the right things in the right quantities provides the foundation on which exercise can work. While physical activity is important, the immediate problem is the UK’s reliance on processed foods, high-calorie snacks, sugar and excessive alcohol consumption.

What can be done?

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Individuals looking to lose a lot of weight have found great benefits in the Cambridge Diet, which combines a specially formulated low-calorie diet with individual mentoring. Ideally, however, the causes of obesity need to be tackled on a society-wide level. This may involve higher taxes on unhealthy foods, plus greater levels of education on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, especially for the young.

Are children affected?

20% of children in their final year of primary school are obese, while according to the 2016 Health Survey for England, 23% of 11-15 year olds are obese. Obesity levels worsen with age, with one-third of adults over 35 being considered obese, but bad habits when young can lead to problems later. Currently, fewer than 10% of teenagers consume their recommended five a day fruit or vegetables, while sugar consumption among the 11-18 age group is three times what it should be.

What are the consequences?

The most noticeable adverse consequence of obesity is a runaway rise in cases of type 2 diabetes. 85% of these are attributable to obesity, and 10% of all patients admitted to hospital have type 2 diabetes. As a result, the NHS spends over £1bn every year treating diabetes, roughly one-eighth of its total budget. If left untreated, diabetes can lead in turn to serious problems including blindness, heart disease and kidney failure.

Perhaps the starkest summary of the costs came from a 52-country study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which said this year that Britain’s obesity crisis was costing every taxpayer £409 every year, and was reducing life expectancy by 2.7 years.

The obesity crisis is real and is getting worse. On one level it is up to individuals to change their lifestyles by eating better and exercising more. But society needs to provide the means for this to be done, in terms of education and easier, more affordable access to healthy food, as well as alternative approaches to coping with the stresses of modern life, beyond comfort foods, alcohol and sedentary leisure activities.

Obesity is an issue for all of us, and one that needs addressing urgently.

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