Britain's obesity crisis: why is the UK so fat?

Dec 11, 2015

Chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies warns that obesity is a national risk – particularly among women

PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Tackling Britain's obesity crisis needs to be made a national priority, England's chief medical officer has warned in her annual report.

Official figures show that up to half of all women of child-bearing age in England are overweight or obese, and Professor Dame Sally Davies warns that soaring obesity levels are jeopardising the health of future generations.

"This is a difficult message to convey, as it risks burdening women with guilt and responsibility," she acknowledged.

"But I believe that it can also empower women to take positive steps like eating more healthily and taking more exercise. It is never too late to take action for a healthier lifestyle."

What are the implications of such a high obesity rate?

"Estimates of the economic costs of obesity suggest they will bankrupt the NHS," Professor Nick Finer, from University College London's Institute of Cardiovascular Science, told the BBC.

"Elevating the problem of obesity to a national risk could help to address the current 'laissez faire' attitude to this huge, angry, growing health catastrophe."

With the increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, strokes and cancer, last year MPs warned that tens of thousands more parents would have to bury their children as a result. "Today it's the exception to bury your child. By 2050 it will be far less so unless we change habits," said Conservative MP Nick de Bois.

How does the UK compare to the rest of the world?

The UK is the 23rd most obese country in the world, according to UN figures published in 2013. It tied with Russia with a 24.9 per cent prevalence of adult obesity. At the top of the list was Mexico at 32.8 per cent, followed by the US at 31.8 per cent. Japan had the lowest rate at 4.5 per cent.

What about the rest of Europe?

The UK has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, according to the same UN report. Ireland comes in second with 24.5 per cent of its population obese, and Spain is ranked third with 24.1 per cent.

"The UK is the 'fat man' of Europe," writes Professor Terence Stephenson in Measuring Up, a report on the nation's obesity crisis by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. "It is no exaggeration to say that it is the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today."

Why are Britons so fat?

Soaring obesity rates have been blamed on modern lifestyles with easy access to high calorie foods and sedentary jobs. Many blame individuals for bad dietary habits, but Ben Brooks, writing in The Guardian, says this "fails to address the roots of overconsumption: cost of living, manipulative marketing, nutritional misinformation and – often overlooked – simple palatability".

What can be done?

The National Obesity Forum calls on health officials to introduce hard-hitting awareness campaigns – similar to those for smoking – to try to stem the problem. It has urged family doctors to proactively discuss weight management with patients and routinely measure children's height and weight.

A panel of MPs recently backed calls for a tax on sugary drinks as part of "bold and urgent" reforms to tackle childhood obesity. They did, however, acknowledge that no single measure is likely to transform eating habits. It has said the introduction of a sugar tax should form part of a package of measures that also includes stringent controls on promotion and clearer labelling.

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Obesity need not be bad for all. I have found some really nice stuff in charity and thrift stores that were discarded -- owners put on weight and throw really nice stuff out. No-one every considers us lightweights, but we have to live too you know.

sugar is Satan's servant. Astonishing amounts in everything we buy. and salt too. double whammy.