Obesity is a major global concern. This widespread medical condition and lifestyle disorder increases the risk of chronic diseases including type-2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hypertension and some cancers.

It can also negatively impact mental health and self esteem.

The effects of obesity are not solely limited to the individual as the condition places significant burden on public health and social services.

The obesity epidemic is a fairly recent phenomenon but its impact has already drastically affected our health service, and those around the world.

UK trends

The most recent data shows that two thirds or 62% of the UK population are classed as either overweight or obese. The prevalence of the condition has increased by 400% in the last 25 years alone.

The turning point for the UK population can probably be pinpointed to the 1960s. In the 1960s obesity levels were thought to be as low as one or two percent; whereas today around 25 percent of the population is thought to be obese.

So, what has happened since then to cause the changes that we’re witnessing now?

In the last 50 years we have seen an increase in:

  • people using cars as transport
  • the number of supermarkets
  • the number of fast food and takeaway outlets
  • the presence of energy dense foods
  • disposable income of the general population.

During this time there has also been a decrease in:

  • people eating home cooked meals
  • physically demanding jobs
  • the amount of time spent on housework
  • people walking during their commute.

UK obesity profile

Obesity is a UK-wide problem.

The area most affected according to reported statistics is the North East of England, while the lowest rates are found in the South West region.

A link has been established between socioeconomic status and obesity. Women in particular show a noticeable increase in obesity prevalence in deprived areas (men show an increase too but only when measured via socioeconomic factors).

What is causing the obesity epidemic in the UK?

There are several theories. However, most experts agree that the following factors have had a bearing on the situation:

  • High calorie or energy dense food items are more readily available and are cheap. Between 1993 and 1998 sales of snacks tripled.
  • Inadequate education in basic cookery. More young people do not know how to prepare and cook healthy and balanced meals, which is creating a generation more reliant on convenient but unhealthy alternatives.
  • A lack of advertising restrictions on unhealthy foods. Advertisers are permitted to promote unhealthy foods with few limitations, even creating campaigns specifically aimed at children.
  • Supermarket deals. Special offers that push the sale of unhealthy products can make it difficult for consumers to avoid making unwise purchases. 
  • The UK is becoming an increasingly sedentary nation. More and more people are employed in job roles where little or no physical activity is required; television viewing has more than doubled since the 1960s; and the majority of households own at least one car which often leads to a reduction in walking.
  • Bigger portion sizes. Fast food outlets, restaurants and pre-packed food snacks frequently provide the option of increasing the size of our meal or food item usually only for a small price.

European obesity trends

The UK has one of the highest obesity prevalences in Europe according to some studies, although levels are in fact increasing across the continent.

EU obesity statistics (both sexes, 2014)

UK 28.1%
Czech Republic 26.8%
Malta 26.6%
Lithuania 25.9%
Slovakia 25.7%
Ireland 25.6%
Poland 25.2%
Slovenia 25.1%
Hungary 24%
France 23.9%
Cyprus 23.8%
Latvia 23.7%
Spain 23.7%
Croatia 23.3%
Bulgaria 23.2%
Luxembourg 23.1%
Greece 22.9%
Estonia 22.6%
Romania 21.7%
Italy 21%
Finland 20.6%
Sweden 20.5%
Belgium 20.2%
Germany 20.1%
Portugal 20.1%
Netherlands 19.8%
Denmark 19.3%
Austria 18.4%

No country has yet been able to successfully reverse obesity numbers. However, Finland has managed to slow their obesity rate and also reduce the number of deaths caused by coronary heart disease.

What initiatives have Finland implemented in order to curb obesity?

Over the years the country has used a combination of strong government campaigns, childhood education and food industry cooperation to encourage positive healthy habits.

It would be too simplistic to suggest that all countries could slow their own obesity rates by following Finland’s lead.

Finland has a population of just over five million and has arguably been less influenced by outside societies over the years perhaps making choices for the population easier.

Worldwide obesity trends

The obesity epidemic reaches far and wide across the globe with increased rates noted in many countries outside Europe too.

The highest rates of obesity are observed in the Americas and the lowest rates are seen in South East Asia.

Japan has consistently ranked low on the obesity scale, even following the relatively recent introduction of fast food eateries. Diets have changed slightly and continue to do so but the changes are yet to have an effect on the country’s waistline.

What makes Japan different?

  • Food is generally more expensive.
  • The average Japanese diet contains 200 fewer calories than the average American counterparts.
  • Owning and running a car is more expensive so people tend to walk more.
  • ‘The Metabo Law’, implemented in 2008, ensures that men and women aged between 40 and 74 years have their waistline measured on a yearly basis. Those found to be overweight or obese are offered medical support.
  • High obesity levels are not necessarily indicative of a country’s economic advancement as many developing countries also report growing obesity levels. It is not limited to those with higher average incomes; however, it does tend to be more prevalent in those where higher incomes are more common.

In 1980 only eight percent of women and five percent of men worldwide were classed as obese. In the five year period between 1995 and 2000 global obesity levels shot up by a staggering 100 million cases. By 2014 15% of women and 11% of men fell into the obesity category.

This means that on a worldwide scale over half a billion people are obese. In the same year 39% of the population was classed as overweight.

Obesity and age group

In the UK the prevalence of obesity tends to increase with age although there is a drop off point after the age of 75.

Obesity levels are at their highest for women aged between 65-74 years, whereas the majority of obese men tend to be aged between 45-64 years.

Childhood obesity is an increasing public health concern. Close to a third of children and young people aged between 2-15 years are either overweight or obese.

Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to become overweight or obese adults. They are at increased risk of developing numerous chronic health conditions earlier on in life.

Early onset of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease lead to a lower quality of life and one that costs the health system and economy more money for an extended period of time.

Obesity related deaths

Those who are obese have an increased risk of developing certain diseases such as hypertension, type-2 diabetes, heart disease and cancers. The condition can have a negative impact on every aspect of health.

It is estimated that 2.8 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese.

Obesity is set to soon surpass smoking as the biggest contributor to the premature loss of life. It has already been linked to approximately 32,000 cancer-related deaths in the UK each year. It has also been noted that some cancers are occurring 20 years earlier in life than they used to.

Those who are obese face up to a nine year reduction in their life expectancy.

How much does obesity cost the NHS?

A recent study conservatively estimated that the NHS spends £3.3-3.7 billion per year on obesity related illness. When overweight health conditions are also taken into account this estimate adds up to an astounding £6.6-7.4 billion.

Whilst the wider reaching implications of the epidemic costs the UK economy an estimated £27 billion.

The future and obesity

Under current circumstances it would seem that the high levels of obesity are unfortunately here to stay. The high statistics mentioned above do not show any signs of decreasing. The World Health Organisation (WHO) expects obesity levels to continue to increase in the UK and across the globe.

Recent WHO projections estimate that by 2030, 36 percent of UK males and 34 percent of UK females will be obese. It has also been suggested that the current generation of children will be the first ever to potentially fall victim to a drop in life expectancy.

As mentioned above obesity can lead to a wide range of medical conditions that put further pressure on health and social care systems. An increasingly obese population will subsequently lead to more chronically ill people requiring medical attention and support. There will also be an increase in amputees, blind people and the need for kidney dialysis.

Society has needed to adapt recently to accommodate the physical changes obesity brings with it. Children’s clothing sizes have increased to take into account the new generation’s expanding waistline. Airlines are looking into manufacturing re-configurable passenger seats that allow more room for obese passengers.

Our obesogenic environment is a breeding ground for new obese generations. It has been proven that prevention of the disease is much more effective than treatment as it is much harder to lose weight than it is to keep it off in the first place.

What strategies might improve help to reduce obesity in the future?

No-one solution can solve the issue. Instead, a combination of social and economic strategies is usually cited by experts to help people make healthier choices whe it comes to food.

Among these are:

  • Making healthy food more affordable.
  • Imposing restrictions on the advertising of unhealthy foods.
  • Curbing unhealthy food advertising aimed at children.
  • Introducing taxes on unhealthy foods thus making them more expensive.
  • Reducing the amount of sugar and fats in processed food.
  • Further developing and improving food labelling and packaging.
  • Implementing a thorough food education programme.
  • Using in-store promotion of healthy foods.
  • Promoting regular physical activity.