Is obesity inevitable?

Obesity cuts life expectancy by an average of up to 10 years, and costs the UK £5.1bn a year to treat; treating obesity and diabetes costs more than it takes to run the police, fire service and court system combined.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay under Creative Coomons.

Obesity has been rising in adults for more than thirty years and more recently an upward trend has been identified in children. In 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese with the prevalence of obesity increasing from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015. The trend has also been identified in school children through the National Child Measurement Programme: in 2015/16, over 1 in 5 children in Reception, and over 1 in 3 children in Year 6 were measured as obese or overweight, meaning that there is nearly a doubling of the rate of overweight and obesity in children as they move through primary school.

There is clearly a direct link between adult and childhood obesity; a child without an obese parent has a 10% chance of becoming obese, whereas a child with one parent who is obese has a 40% chance of becoming obese and a child with two obese parents has an 80% chance of becoming obese. Is this due to genes or their environment? A new branch of science called epigenetics have found a link between obese pregnant women and the likelihood of their baby growing up to be obese; the environment of the womb predisposes the growing babies genes to be more susceptible to obesity. So genes can play a part in childhood obesity.

We know that in adults environmental issues influence the rate of obesity, this is also true for children, and an issue that has been identified recently is that in areas of high deprivation children have higher rates of obesity. It was found by National Child Measurement Programme that 24.7% of children in year 6 from the most deprived areas of England were obese compared to 13.1% of children in the least deprived areas.

So if these reports are finding that one third of children are obese and one quarter of adults are obese, and that both genes and the environment we live in play a part in obesity you might ask what is going on and is it inevitable that this trend will continue.

One explanation for the lack of progress in tackling obesity is that we are becoming immune to it. With the gradual rise in obesity, it has become more accepted. Only 6% of Britons in 2014 consider themselves to be obese, whereas a quarter are obese, and parents of obese children fail to recognise that their child is obese. Public Health England make the following suggestions:

Copyright: Public Health England.

Tackling Obesity

Until recently, obesity has been a medical concern, with most interventions focusing on treatment or individual behaviour modification. However there is gradual recognition that obesity is not a problem of individuals but a problem of society. Therefore measures have been put into place to tackle obesity and overweight at population levels.

Some strategies for controlling childhood obesity include:

  • Regulation of food marketing; ‘fat tax’ on high-fat, high-sugar food and beverages, particularly those aimed at children and young people.
  • Schools as health-supporting environments.
  • Restaurants, food and beverage companies to improve offerings for children, reduce portion sizes and make healthy choices more attractive.

The media needs to reinforce healthy lifestyle choices through advertising, television, film and the internet.

Dr Joan Simons is an Associate Dean at The Open University.

This article was previously published on OpenLearn in March 2018 and can be viewed here.

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