Our obesity crisis

A complex issue with no silver bullet

In-association-with-2020health

Obesity is one of the greatest health issues of modern-day Britain. Many say that we’re in the midst of an obesity crisis, with up to 64 per cent of adults in the UK either overweight or obese. Despite the prevalence of this problem and the years of research into it, it’s still an issue that is hugely misunderstood.

In the last decade, the buck has passed from foodstuff to foodstuff. Once upon a time it was butter and saturated fats that were to blame. Processed meats and salt have also been in the spotlight — but now it’s sugar that’s being identified as the main culprit behind the nation’s obesity epidemic. Sugar is such an enemy that the Health Select Committee has been recommended to introduce a sugar tax. But do we know enough about the facts behind Britain’s obesity epidemic to point the finger of blame so firmly at sugar alone?

Whilst eating well is vital for all-round health, a new study published by 2020health suggests that focusing on diet alone cannot solve the obesity crisis. It highlights a wider set of factors behind the nation’s epidemic — some of them predictable, other less so.

When giving evidence to the Health Select Committee’s recent Childhood Obesity Inquiry, Professor Graham McGregor said that ‘poor and socially deprived people are the ones that get obese’. This tends to be generally accepted as true – but what 2020health’s study showed is that while socio-economic factors do play a large role in whether or not a person is obese, it is not as simple as all that. The evidence that links lower socio-economic groups to obesity is still overwhelming – but other groups are now beginning to experience the same rapidly rising rates of obesity.

Obesity levels amongst middle-class, middle-aged men have increased dramatically. Previously, women were generally viewed as more likely to become obese than men, but 2020health’s review of the evidence shows that men are quickly catching up and that obesity rates between the sexes are now nearly equal. Obesity rates remain higher for women at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, but amongst the wealthy, men are more likely to become obese. As statistics such as this change, we need to factor these in to our future health policies.

Obesity-2Whilst the types of people who become obese are changing, the 2020health study indicated that changing personal circumstances affect obesity levels too. People who are experiencing uncertainty or personal instability also have a tendency towards obesity. It’s not just those whose lives are changing for the worse, either. For the economically mobile – whether moving upwards or downwards – there are higher rates of obesity than in those who are stable in their place in the economic system , whatever that place may be.

Linking obesity solely to socio-economic factors and gender is to simplify the matter enormously. The latest study reveals just how important people’s local environments – both at work and at home – can be to obesity rates. The factors that influence obesity do vary dependent on gender, however. In men, for example, the presence of large numbers of fast-food outlets near their workplace has a large effect on obesity rates. In fact in their earlier research paper ‘Careless eating costs lives,’ 2020health calls for a licensing system for fast-food outlets. It has also been revealed that lack of green space can be a contributory factor to obesity in young women. Mental health issues can also influence people’s weight and the study showed that half of all people with psychosis are obese.

Essentially, what this study shows is that it’s not as simple as blaming sugar, or saying that socially deprived people with excess levels of sugar in their diet are those most likely to become obese. A vast number of factors can determine whether a person becomes obese — from age, gender and geographic location, to whether or not they smoke, and the presence of mental illness.

So is a sugar tax the answer? Excess amounts of sugar are certainly not a good thing, but the problem is that many other factors are being overlooked, which could unintentionally make the problem worse. Focusing solely on sugar in soft drinks – or indeed on any individual sector or solution – will never solve the problem of Britain’s obesity crisis.

The reasons behind why some of us get fat and others don’t are wide-ranging, and our response to obesity needs to reflect that. Sugar and diet are part of the problem – as are socio-economic factors – but they’re not the only things that need to be taken into account.

At the moment the nation’s obesity crisis is weighing down our NHS, economy, and welfare system, and something needs to be done. Emergency COBRA-style meetings might sound dramatic, but they could be the only way to give the crisis the necessary high profile and status required to deliver an effective strategy. Successive governments have failed time and time again to tackle the problem, and it is only getting worse.

Who becomes obese, and why they do, is a complex issue, and fighting the battle against obesity is a difficult challenge, but it’s one that needs to be both fought and won for the benefit of everyone, obese or not. Focusing on single issues, however, is never going to be the answer. In their 2014 ‘Careless eating…’ report 2020health recommended that government policy should satisfy an ‘obesity test,’ and it is clear that this cross-departmental and holistic approach is necessary to end this health crisis once and for all.

Click here to listen to the Health Podcast Special: Exploring Obesity

2020health conducted the research with the support of an unrestricted educational grant from AB Sugar. The views and opinion within the report and this feature do not necessarily reflect those of AB Sugar.