Obesity has become an increasingly pressing issue for countries worldwide, with the UK facing a more acute problem than others. The Institute for Government describes it as a chronic problem in the UK, which has had time to course-correct but hasn’t managed to do so effectively.
This article will explore the severity of the situation in the UK, the factors contributing to obesity, and potential solutions for the government to address this growing concern.
How bad is the situation in the UK?
It is essential to stress that all countries have been struggling with obesity in recent years. For example, most countries in the G20 have seen an increase of 11 and 25% of obese people since 1975. The UK’s data roughly fits within this range.
In England, since 1993, the percentage of adults with obesity has basically doubled from 15 to 28% in 2019. Interestingly, over half of this increase occurred between 1993 and 2001. The situation in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is similar, although Wales and Northern Ireland generally have lower rates of obesity than England.
One of the starkest differences in obesity rates comes from deprivation quintiles. Almost 70% of those in the most deprived quintile are either overweight or living with obesity. This is vastly different from the 59% of those in the least deprived quintile. The divide appears to be widening, with the percentage difference in obesity between the least and most deprived deciles rising from 8.2% to 9.4% in the last five years.
This disparity also exists in children and has been widening. In 2007-2008, 22.3% of people in year six in the most deprived decile were obese. This increased by just shy of 10% to 31.3% in 2021-2022. In the least deprived decile back in 2007-2008, only 12.7% of those in year six were obese. This increased only to 13.5% in 2021-2022, which is not even a 1% increase.
Aside from the moral considerations, obesity has further effects on wider society. The total societal costs of obesity have been estimated somewhere in the £29 billion to £58 billion range, which is roughly about 1 to 2% of GDP. Obesity-related healthcare costs the NHS about £6.5 billion per year.
Clearly, obesity is a problem in the UK, and it is linked to deprivation. This issue affects the economy, making it essential to examine the factors contributing to obesity in the UK and explore potential government solutions.
Factors affecting obesity in the UK
One of the main links between obesity and deprivation is the cost of food. Over the last few decades, the production of food has changed dramatically, with an increase in super-abundance foods that are high in fat, sugar, and salt.
These foods are cheap, made with ingredients that have a long shelf life, and provide a lot of calories for very little money, making them increasingly popular. Modern working and living patterns have also increased the prevalence of snacking. In contrast, healthy foods are more expensive.
Henry Dimbleby described this situation as the junk food cycle, where the food industry struggles to sell healthy food, making it increasingly difficult for society to be healthy. Poor economic prospects tie in with obesity, as poor health slows economic productivity, which in turn reduces household income, and decreases the consumption of expensive healthy food, making people more unhealthy. This feedback loop has been ongoing for decades.
What the government could do
Previous governments have attempted to address the obesity problem, with strategies such as the 2016 Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the Change4Life campaign in 2009. However, the Institute for Government highlights that these policies largely focused on individual responsibility, with many making high demands on individual agency.
While there is a place for policies that focus on individual responsibility, they need to be complemented by policies that focus on food producers.
Furthermore, even when these policies are implemented, they have often been voluntary. The Institute for Government offers several suggestions for what the government could do differently:
- Implement a long-term strategy on obesity, with clear long and medium-term targets, and decide on specific topics to focus on.
- Build a consensus on action for food and health, ensuring agreement in both the political and public spheres.
- Develop a communication strategy to gain public support and avoid accusations of acting like a nanny state.
- Strengthen the evidence for obesity policies by commissioning reports that address sticking points, such as the role of ultra-processed foods in causing obesity.
Obesity is a particularly acute problem in the UK, hitting those in more deprived areas harder due to various economic factors. The government can take steps to address this issue by setting clear goals, focusing on both individual responsibility and food producers, building consensus on action, developing effective communication strategies, and investing in research to strengthen the evidence for obesity policies. By tackling obesity, the government can work towards a healthier society and a more robust economy.