No one health issue has the most impact on human health, or engenders more debate about how to tackle it, than obesity.
It has become the scourge of the health agenda, especially in the west, and it is a growing problem. According to the latest figures from the World Health Organisation, almost three-quarters of British men and two-thirds of women will be overweight or obese by 2030 – a staggering 39 million adults in total. We have one of the worst obesity records in Europe, with just six of the 52 countries in the WHO’s European region with worse obesity rates for women.
We know that obesity has a highly detrimental effect on health and well-being. As a result of its consequences obesity places an enormous burden on the NHS and other social services. Take diabetes as an example - not all cases of diabetes are caused directly by obesity or an unhealthy lifestyle, but the vast majority are. According to the Impact Diabetes report, the cost of treating diabetes will rise from £9.8 billion to £16.9 billion in 25 years’ time – which will equate to 17 per cent of the total NHS budget. Treatment for cardiovascular disease, another condition exacerbated by obesity, already costs the UK health system around £9 billion. These are staggering sums of money that the UK will probably not be able to afford.
The cost implications of obesity are not just confined to health care expenditure – there are ramifications for the wider economy too. In 2013, the Office for National Statistics estimates that 131 million days were lost to UK businesses through absences due to sickness and many of those illnesses can be linked to obesity. According to the CBI, absence from work through sickness is costing the UK £14 billion a year.
While there are many possible approaches to tackling obesity and its consequences in the population, it is clear that there is no single magic bullet. Rather, an arsenal of different approaches needs to be brought to bear on the complex challenge posed by obesity. For some people, there is a need to embrace treatments that clearly work. For certain types of treatments there is still a need to understand better how these treatments can work more effectively so that more people can benefit from them. However, many fundamental questions also remain about the causes of weight gain obesity, which clearly affect only a proportion of the population – although a growing proportion.