Report warns of a looming UK obesity crisis

“Estimates that half the UK population will be obese by 2050 'underestimate' the problem, a report has claimed,” according to BBC News, while the Daily Mail describes how a “bombshell report reveals true scale of crisis” around the nation’s bulging waistlines.

The report, published by the National Obesity Forum, calls for hard-hitting awareness campaigns similar to anti-smoking advertisements. The State of the Nation’s Waistline report by the National Obesity Forum, focused on the core issue of how a previous Government report predicting half of Britons will be obese by 2050 – a startling and troubling stat in itself – may be an underestimate.

The BBC reports how the forum described the original report as “shocking at the time” but that it “may now underestimate the scale of the problem”.

Based on the data provided in the report, as well as associated evidence, a case could well be made that obesity is to the 21st century as tobacco was to the 20th century. That is, an entirely preventable cause of chronic diseases and premature death.

Who produced the report?

The new report entitled, State of the Nation’s Waistline, was produced by the National Obesity Forum, a charity raising awareness of obesity in the UK and promoting ways in which it can be addressed.

The report is being released to coincide with the start of National Obesity Awareness Week 2014. This is a campaign to raise public awareness of obesity and the ways it can be tackled at governmental levels through the promotion of some policies and changes to others, and at a personal level through achievable and manageable lifestyle changes.

What evidence did the report consider?

The report aimed to address three main areas:

  • Analyse existing research to offer an assessment on the scale of obesity in the UK and to consider how this might either increase or decrease in the future.
  • Summarise and review UK policy regarding weight management and obesity, and to provide comment on its effectiveness.
  • To offer recommendations as to what changes are necessary to reduce obesity levels in the UK.

It drew on evidence from a range of sources, including:

  • the Foresight Report (2007) which concluded that half the UK population could be obese by 2050 at a cost of £50bn per year
  • research and official statistics published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre – a national provider of high-quality health and social care information
  • data from national and local health surveys including The Health Survey for England (2010)
  • primary research studying trends in obesity in the UK

What were the main conclusions?

The main conclusion was that the already worrying predictions made in the 2007 Foresight Report “could be optimistic and could be exceeded by 2050” meaning they think it is possible half of Britain’s population will be obese before 2050, earlier than the original report predicted.

The revised outlook came from figures showing that obesity levels among adults and children are generally rising fast, and that people are getting fatter in later life. However, they note that there has been some fall in the number of obese and overweight children in their final year of primary school in England for the first time in six years (based on a 2013 report) but that childhood obesity still remains “worryingly high”.

Additionally, the levelling off of upward obesity rates tends to be among children from the most affluent areas, obesity levels in children from deprived areas remain high.

In summary, while there are glimmers of hope, the overall picture is bad and may be worse than previously assumed.

The report acknowledges current government approaches to the obesity problem, including the Change4Life Programme and the Public Health Responsibility Deal, but highlights “significant gaps that must be addressed”.

For example, they highlight how people’s intake of salt, trans-fats and sugar remains enormously important. Interestingly it also draws attention to what it describes as a “body of evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of proper hydration (what and how much you should drink) as part of a broader approach to healthy living rather than an emphasis on healthy eating specifically”.

People who drink a lot of carbonated sugary drinks or alcohol may be unaware about how this can impact on their daily calorie intake. For example, a single 330ml can of cola amounts to around 7% of the recommended daily calorie intake for a woman. While a pint of export lager contains around 260 calories; over 10% of the recommended calorie amount for a man (read more about the calories in alcohol).

Drinking habits have not typically been part of the public discussion of tackling obesity, so highlighting this issue to the public is new.

What does the report recommend?

  • Harder-hitting campaigns, similar to those for anti-smoking.
  • GPs should be encouraged to engage with patients on obesity and weight management issues.
  • GPs should be encouraged and indeed required to make every contact with patients count. Very few patients will cite obesity or weight management as the reason for seeing their GP so GPs need to be the ones to talk about weight issues.
  • Greater training of primary healthcare professionals on obesity and weight management.
  • Government initiatives should include a greater focus on the importance of good hydration in weight management and health outcomes. By focusing primarily on healthy eating and food choices, existing guidance overlooks the undermining effect that poor hydration choices can have.
  • Greater focus needs to be devoted to strategies supporting individuals who are already obese. Current government policy is focused largely on prevention.
  • The introduction of compulsory physical education in schools is positive. However, greater promotion of physical activity outside of educational settings is also key.

NHS Attribution