Obesity is a pandemic of its own. Across the world, it has a negative effect on people and their lives. It causes or is associated with multiple medical complications, including 12 kinds of cancer, liver and respiratory disease, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and it substantially shortens life expectancy. Recently it has also come to light that those classified as obese and diagnosed with Covid-19 are more likely to be admitted to a hospital and an intensive care unit than somebody of a healthy weight.
Like all pandemics, there is no easy cure. The disorder is caused by a variety of genetic, behavioural, lifestyle and environmental factors, and so there is not one simple solution for everyone. However, rates of obesity have drastically increased in recent years due to the abundance of processed, unhealthy foods high in sugar, salt and fat, the inaccessibility or lack of education on cheap, healthy alternatives, and reduced levels of physical activity due to increasingly sedentary lifestyles.
Obesity in Adults
Approximately two-thirds of adults (63%) in England were classed as being overweight (a BMI of over 25) or obese (a BMI of over 30) in 2015. Around this time, the NHS spent around £6.1 million on obesity-related problems and estimated that the cost to the wider society was £27 million.
As well as reduced life expectancy and increased health risks, obesity has a huge impact on the mental health of the adult population. Depression is both a cause and a consequence of obesity in adults. A study has shown that people who were obese have a 55% increased risk of developing depression over time, whereas people experiencing depression have a 58% increased risk of becoming obese. Obesity can harm peoples’ prospects in life, their self-esteem and their underlying mental health.
Obesity in the elderly is a growing concern as this age group comes with their own set of problems, with the same associated health risks such as diabetes, sleep apnoea and heart-related problems, but also the need for greater hospitalisation and care. The more overweight an elderly person is, the more likely they are to develop mobility problems and to experience difficulties with carrying out everyday tasks. This makes them more dependent on others for daily care.
It is increasingly worrying how obesity is affecting children at a young age. If a large sector of the adult population is obese now, these numbers will only increase if we don’t improve the health of young people. In 2018/19 the NHS reported that 1 in 5 of year 6 children were classified as obese. These figures have doubled over the last thirty years.
Obesity creates serious complications in children at a young age. Twenty years ago, type 2 diabetes was an adult disease, but today there are approximately 100 new cases a year of children with diabetes. Diabetes can damage sight, kidneys and cause leg ulcers, symptoms which are particularly concerning in children. Obesity can also cause children to suffer from psychological problems, joint pain, early puberty, and asthma.
Children living in deprived areas have double the risk of obesity than their peers in less deprived areas. Obesity is now considered a form of malnutrition, as deprived families rely on cheaper processed foods lacking the nutrients needed for healthy growth. Healthy food is often perceived as being more expensive and families justify their food choices in this way.
The UK government’s aim is to halve childhood obesity by 2030, but in reality we are far from achieving this. As a society, we know that our children deserve better and that being overweight or obese will negatively impact their lives and opportunities.
However, our lifestyles have become tied up with the temptations and ease of access to unhealthy food. Overcoming this requires serious action and a nationwide rethink on educating the population on healthy eating and cooking.
So how do we solve the issue of obesity? Is it as simple as Boris Johnson has said: we just need to cycle more, pay attention to the calories on a restaurant menu, and be grateful that we can now watch TV before 9 pm with no food adverts?
It is a good start, but like so many government initiatives, these measures fail to grasp exactly what is at the root of the problem. Changing people’s habits and behaviour will not happen overnight.
Educating families on healthy eating is key. Children learn very quickly to manipulate their parents into getting the food that they want and become accustomed to receiving food as a reward. Once bad habits are made, they are extremely difficult to undo. Parents need to become aware of how food can impact a child’s life, and introduce healthy habits while they are young so that they can grow into adults and take that knowledge with them. Simple changes like eating as a family in a comfortable space can benefit.
It is not too late for adults, either. Helping people to change the way that they eat and enjoy their food needs to be addressed. Learning to cook healthily is of utmost importance in tackling obesity so that people understand what they are putting into their foods and realise how simple it is to make nutritious alternatives.