Cancer Research UK says most millennials will be overweight. Will the CEO put his money where his mouth is?

As has been reported in every newspaper, Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is very concerned about millennials. The charity predicts that ‘more than seven in 10’ of them will be overweight or obese by the time they approach middle age and it has proposed a raft of measures, starting with advertising bans, to prevent this from happening.

Regular readers will know that I am a little sceptical about obesity forecasts because they have always been wrong in the past. The government’s Foresight report of 2007 confidently claimed that a third of us would be obese by 2015. The obesity rate was 24 per cent at the time. It is currently 26 per cent.

In 2016, I put my money where my mouth was and offered a wager to anybody who was prepared to stand by some particularly implausible childhood obesity predictions. No one took me up on it, but I am happy to make a similar bet with CRUK today. Not only will I take a £1,000 wager that they are wrong, but I will offer odds of 2 to 1 against.

It is possible that I will lose my money. I have no control over the lifestyles of millennials and I have no special powers of prediction. But I do know that millennials are not getting fatter and I have no faith in CRUK’s methodology which is simply this

‘…the linear trend in overweight/obesity prevalence at age 35-44 between 1993 and 2015 was projected forward to estimate overweight/obesity prevalence in this age group in 2026-28.’

CRUK says that it using figures from the Health Survey for England for this projection, but if you look at this data set you will see that there has been no rise in overweight and obesity since 2002. For CRUK’s prediction to be correct, somebody is going to have to put a rocket under middle-aged obesity because it has refused to budge for the best part of two decades.

‘Overweight’ is a term that has no medical significance. Overweight people do not die younger, and may live slightly longer, than people who are of ‘healthy weight’. It is arbitrarily defined as a body mass index of 25 or more and is generally lumped in with obesity when campaigners want to use a big number.

Nevertheless, it is clear that there was a rise in overweight/obesity in the 1990s among 35-44 year olds, but this came to an end 16 years ago. In 2002, the rate was 63 per cent. In 2016 – the most recent year for which we have data – the rate was still 63 per cent.

There is no linear trend to follow. There are two trends. The first, between 1993 and 2002, was upwards. The second, between 2002 and the present day, is flat.

It is difficult to explain why CRUK believes that a trend that has been flat since 2002 is suddenly going to shoot upwards. Perhaps it is because overweight/obesity is rising among millennials?

But it isn’t. The rate of overweight/obesity among 25-34 year olds is currently 50 per cent and is virtually unchanged since the year 2000 when it was 51 per cent.

It is a little difficult to pin down exactly what CRUK is forecasting. The press release that launched this story onto the front pages today is thin on details, but according to the Telegraph, they are predicting that the rate of overweight/obesity among 35-44 year olds will have risen to 74 per cent by 2026-28.

It’s a long time to wait but I am a patient man, so here is the bet I am prepared to make with the CEO of Cancer Research UK, Harpal Kumar. If his prediction is correct, I will give his organisation £1,000. If he is wrong, he will give £500 – which is less than a day’s pay for him – to Macmillan Cancer Support, a charity that doesn’t waste money on silly publicity stunts.


  • Chris Oakley

    Under Kumar, CRUK has lost a great deal of credibility outside the happy clappy world of public health by doing exactly this sort of thing. He has made a small fortune from donations intended for research and has employed ignorant and incompetent spin doctors using monies that would have been better spent on scientists. I stopped donating to CRUK as a consequence. The politicians knighted him. And some wonder why British people have come to distrust and despise the UK establishment..