what is obesity and why does it dominate national conversation around health?

sugar and obesity

by Nancy
(obesity series: blog 1)

Obesity in the UK is clearly a massive problem, “it is estimated that it affects 1 in every 4 adults and 1 in every 5 in children aged 10 to 11” (NHS). But something else which hinders national conversation about obesity is identifying the difference between genuine medical concern over someone’s weight versus fat-shaming.

In a series of blog posts, we explore the medical condition itself, the stigma and the role women and policy can play in stemming the obesity epidemic.

what is obesity?

Obesity is defined by WHO (World Health Organisation) as “abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health” – basically being overweight to the point where it becomes a risk to your health. A common way medical professionals identify obesity is BMI (Body Mass Index). This measures whether you are a healthy weight for your height (you can test yourself here). In recent years, however, there has been some hesitation over using BMI as anything more that a guide due to the simplicity of the BMI test versus the complexities of the human body. For example, muscular people tend to be heavier, as muscle is heavier than fat, so they may have a high BMI without the excess fat. An alternative to this test is waist circumference, as “men with a waist circumference of 94cm (37in) or more and women with a waist circumference of 80cm (about 31.5in) or more are more likely to develop obesity-related health problems.” (NHS)

why all the attention and why should we be so worried?

There are many health problems linked to obesity, which can be life-changing and life-threatening, making obesity an urgent medical crisis in the UK. It is linked to many serious illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some cancers such as breast cancer and bowel cancer and stroke. The problem of obesity is becoming a major health crisis around the world with at least 2.8 million dying as a result of obesity (WHO).

The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) has concluded a study of Britain that has found that we are the most obese country in Western Europe. And guess what, there are no prizes for coming first in that race. The Health at a Glance Report has found that since the 1990s obesity has increased by 92% in the UK, which is a terrifying figure and a terrifying prospect for our NHS. It is such a problem that some believe that this crisis could bankrupt the NHS (The Guardian). The health ramifications of obesity in Britain are medical, financial and political.

why is obesity on the increase?

There are social, economic, environmental and financial barriers spinging up all around us at the rate on knots which are all contributing to the obesity epidemic, but let us review a few. Exercising and eat healthily can be hindered by lack of time, money, opportunity, education and safety (women often worry about harrassment and personal safety when out for a run). Alongside this, a change in working patterns sees the majority of us sitting in front of a computer for 7 hours a day. Our relationship with food has dramatically changed, as fast food and ready meals have become more accessible and much cheaper. Sugar intake has also contributed to the obesity epidemic with consumption of sugar being “more than double what it should be, and among 11-18-year-olds is nearly triple” (Sky news). The power of the food industry has a major influence on our attitudes towards food too, which will be discuss further in a later article. There clearly needs to be a major shift in attitude towards food and exercise if we are going to slow the effects of obesity on our society in the UK.

There are a multitude of complex issues that have contributed to the rise in obesity, which means it is difficult to tackle politically. However, the political arena is an important space for change, so we shall discuss the policies that have been introduced to try and tackle obesity later in this series.

This introductory blog is the first in our series about obesity. If you are interested in this topic, there are articles at the end of this piece, and some tools to help you if you are struggling with weight issues. You may also be interested in our SWAP programme or joining our wonderful women only gym to kick-start the change!