UK’s obesity epidemic worse than feared, says study

National Obesity Forum recommends hard-hitting public health campaigns to tackle the problem

By Kundan Pandey
Published: Friday 17 January 2014

Obesity is spreading like an epidemic in the UK and all efforts to curb the health problem seem to have failed. In fact, the country faces the danger of surpassing the predictions of the 2007 Foresight Report that had suggested that 50 per cent of the UK population could be obese by 2050, according to a new report named “State Of The Nation’s Waistline-Obesity in UK: Analysis and Expectation”, published on the launch of the National Obesity Awareness Week from January 13 to 19. The Foresight report had pegged the annual cost of obesity to the nation at nearly £50 billion (more than US $81 billion).

The National Obesity Forum (NOF) of the UK, which has brought out the new report, states that existing policy or government strategies are not enough to control the menace and advocates hard hitting public health campaigns similar to anti-smoking campaigns for tackling obesity.

Grim picture

According to NOF, more than one in five children in their reception year (first year of primary school) and nearly a third of children in the academic year six (comprising students aged between 10 and 11) are overweight or obese.

To show the high prevalence of obesity, NOF has cited several recent studies. One research by the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) of the obesity levels in England concludes that the country has experienced a sharp increase in the body mass index (BMI) of men and women between 1993 and 2011. The research also concludes that 31 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls, in the age group of two to 15 years, are either obese or overweight.

A separate study by researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University has also concluded that children appear to be getting fatter. The researchers measured the waist circumference and BMI of children aged 11-12 years and then repeated the measurements when they were aged 13-14 years and 15-16 years. The children showed central adiposity (high waist circumference) and a stabilisation of BMI. It means despite increasing high circumference at waist, total weight is constant, the study notes.

To worsen the high prevalence of the disease or increasing BMI, studies show people in the UK have little involvement in healthy lifestyle. A research by HSCIC shows that only 36 per cent of adults participate in 30 minutes of moderate physical activity, that too only once a week. The recommended level of exercise is five sessions of 30 minutes’ moderate physical activity in week.

Policy problems

The UK government has been chalking out strategies to curb the obesity epidemic. In 2009, the government initiated its flagship anti-obesity campaign “Change4Life”. The campaign is focused on encouraging families and middle-aged adults to make changes to their lifestyle—including diet, physical activity levels and alcohol consumption. Change4Life has focused on areas such as cutting back on fat, salt, sugar and alcohol, and being physically active on a daily basis. While such initiatives are welcome, so far Change4Life has not had enough impact on the scale of obesity problem. One reason could be that the changes suggested are not significant enough for those who are already overweight or obese. In 2010, following a review of Change4Life, the government continued with the programme, but it has since experienced substantial reductions in funding.

In 2011, the government published its anti-obesity strategy, called “Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England”. This strategy set an ambitious goal of reducing the national energy intake by five billion calories a day to bring the nation back into a “collective energy balance”. The strategy includes empowering individuals (through information, guidance, and the use of behavioural  science); giving the local government a leading role in driving health improvement and using partners at the local level; and building an evidence base on effectiveness and cost effectiveness to identify and spread best practice.

NOF claims that the scheme is there only in documents and its impact is not clear so far. It suggests that a determined approach is needed from the government to ensure that obesity is being effectively tackled.

Efforts needed

This is the reason NOF recommends hard-hitting public health campaigns, along the lines of anti-smoking campaigns. Its report suggests a few steps, including specific schemes for those who are already obese. It also suggests training to primary healthcare professionals on obesity and weight management.

The Quality and Outcomes Framework, a system for the performance management and payment of general practitioners in the National Health Service, needs to be amended to provide incentives for the general practitioners to proactively offer advice to overweight and obese patients and refer them to weight management services.

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