One in four British adults is obese, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, prompting fears that the UK has become the “fat man of Europe”.
The UK has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, ahead of countries such as France, Germany, Spain and Sweden, the 2013 report says.
Obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years and, on current estimates, more than half the population could be obese by 2050.
Europe’s obesity league:
Source: The State of Food and Agriculture, United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.
The cause of the rapid rise in obesity has been blamed on our modern lifestyles, including our reliance on the car, TVs, computers, desk-bound jobs and high-calorie food.
“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 (AoMRC).
“It is no exaggeration to say that it is the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today,” he says.
The consequences of obesity on our health include diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and people dying needlessly from avoidable diseases.
Britain has become an “obese society (PDF, 10Mb)” where being overweight is “normal”. It is a trend three decades in the making which, according to experts, will take several more to reverse.
Obesity epidemic in numbers
A person is considered overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29, and obese with a BMI of 30 and above. In England, 24.8% of adults are obese and 61.7% are either overweight or obese, according to the Health and Social Care Information Centre.
Today’s obesity levels are more than three times what they were in 1980, when only 6% of men and 8% of women were obese. Most people who become obese put on weight gradually between the ages of 20 and 40, but there is some suggestion that the path is set in early childhood.
“Overweight children are more likely to become overweight adults,” says Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford.
The risk of becoming obese is thought to start at an early age and obesity in a parent increases the risk of childhood obesity by 10%. In 2011, around three in 10 boys and girls (aged two to 15) were either overweight or obese and around 16% were obese. There were 62 people aged under 18 who had weight loss surgery between 2011-2013 compared with just one child in 2000.
The North East had the highest obesity rates in England at 13.5% during 2011/12, while the South West reported the lowest levels at 10.4%. Tamworth in Staffordshire, where nearly 31% of people were obese, had the unenviable title of being dubbed Britain’s fattest town by the media.
“Obesity is closely linked to deprivation levels,” says Dr Alison Tedstone, Director of Diet and Obesity at Public Health England. “The association is especially strong with children. Children in poor communities are far more likely to be obese.”
Income, social deprivation and ethnicity have an important impact on the likelihood of becoming obese. For example, women and children in lower socioeconomic groups are more likely to be obese than those who are wealthier.
What caused the obesity crisis?
Recent research has challenged the idea that obesity is simply the result of the individual “eating too much and doing too little”.
Rising obesity is not the result of a national collapse in willpower. Studies have shown the environment has a major influence on the decisions people make about their lifestyle. Known as “obesogenic environments”, these are places, often urban, that encourage unhealthy eating and inactivity.
The car, TV, computers, desk jobs, high-calorie food, and clever food marketing have all contributed to encourage inactivity and overeating. “Obesity is a consequence of the abundance and convenience of modern life as well as the human body’s propensity to store fat,” says Professor Jebb.
Research has shown that we have a natural tendency to store fat – it’s a survival mechanism that helped early humans survive famine and food shortages. “The situation in which food is readily available for most people has arrived in a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms,” says Professor Jebb.
Adults spend about six hours a day engaged in sedentary pursuits (watching TV and other screen time, reading and other low-energy activities). On average, men and women spend 2.8 hours watching television per weekday and this rises to about three hours on weekends.
The average distance a person walked for transport purposes has fallen from 255 miles a year in 1976 to 192 miles in 2003, while car use increased by more than 10%. Although people are travelling further to get to work, one in five journeys of less than one mile are made by car.
“Your likelihood of being active is shaped by the environment you live in,” says Professor Jebb. “For example, you’re more likely to ride a bike if there are safe and convenient cycle lanes.”
In 2012, only 67% of men and 55% of women aged 16 and over met the government’s recommendations for physical activity of 150 minutes a week. Among children aged five to 15, more boys (21%) than girls (16%) met the recommendation to do an hour of activity every day.
Leisure time is increasingly spent indoors whereas the incentives for outdoor play have fallen due to safety concerns and a lack of access to green spaces and sports facilities.
Longer working hours and more desk-bound jobs over the past decades have resulted in limiting opportunities for other forms of activity during the working day.
Breastfeeding, healthy weaning practices and the mother’s own diet have all been linked to reduced obesity later in life although why this is the case has yet to be fully explained. The research was re-published by NHS England.