A roadmap to solving the UK’s obesity crisis

A stark one-in-four UK adults are living with obesity. To tackle this, the Government needs to put in place a holistic strategy focusing on obesity prevention, health education and better support for people living with obesity

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This article has been paid for and developed by Eli Lilly and Company

Obesity rates in the UK have been rising in a slowly-unfolding epidemic. The increase is causing concern across the healthcare community, as people living with the condition are at increased risk of developing other health conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. The wider economy is also suffering with the effects of a more overweight and obese population, both in the UK and globally. Despite the challenges of obesity being widely acknowledged, the chronic, progressive disease does not receive the same level of diagnosis, medical care, or policy attention as other long-term conditions, leaving those affected with limited support.

Often, when support is provided, the disease has already caused physical and mental harm. Obesity is England’s new health crisis. NHS data shows that 26% of adults are living with obesity across the country. However, this is not equally spread across society - the least deprived areas have an obesity prevalence of 20%, whereas in the most deprived areas the rate is 34%.

Obesity, which is defined by the World Health Organization as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health and a body mass index (BMI) equal to or greater than 30, is still seen by many as the result of individual choice.

“Obesity is a complex condition,” says Fernando Campo, Head of Diabetes & Obesity for Northern Europe at pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Company. “​Despite all efforts, people with obesity can find weight loss difficult to achieve and maintain. This is influenced by multiple factors – biological, genetic, behavioural, environmental, social and cultural factors.”

We need to reframe the narrative around obesity. It isn’t an individual problem, it’s a societal problem

The current approach adopted by the Government and NHS has focused on prevention. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy has removed the equivalent of over 45,000 tonnes of sugar from soft drinks since its introduction in 2018. Calorie labelling has also aimed to empower people to make informed choices, while legislation to restrict the placement of foods high in fat, sugar or salt in supermarkets was put in place to reduce the likelihood of impulse purchases. From October 2025, the advertisement of less healthy products will be banned on television and on-demand programmes before the 9pm watershed and online at all times.

While prevention is a key component of tackling obesity, these policy measures are yet to have the desired impact. Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion per year and is projected to have a 3% impact on economic growth over the next 30 years. Higher obesity levels are clearly linked to lower productivity.

Research carried out by Future Health, a research organisation led by a former government special advisor on health, revealed that areas of the country with the highest obesity levels had the lowest GDP per head. In contrast, areas with the highest GDP had some of the lowest levels of obesity. The research highlighted a £9,765 difference in GDP per head between local authorities with the lowest and highest obesity rates outside of London.

Solving the obesity crisis begins with tackling some misguided views. “A lot of people think, just eat less and do more exercise,” says Campo. “Within both Government and the healthcare system, there are many who don’t see obesity as a complex condition and view it as a result of personal choices and personal responsibility. We need to reframe this narrative.”

Changing public attitudes and addressing the shame and stigma that some people living with obesity face is another imperative. “We don’t want people who are living with obesity to be blamed,” adds Campo. “Some people feel shame around their weight and don’t seek help. They need to feel confident that they can engage with healthcare providers and be offered options for support.”

Supporting the 26% of adults in England already suffering with obesity is essential to relieve stress on the NHS and boost productivity and the economy.

But access to NHS support services can be a challenge as they have limited capacity, and waiting lists can be very long. GP’s can potentially refer people to the NHS’s Digital Weight Management programme, an online 12-week behavioural and lifestyle course that helps people to manage their weight remotely. But referrals are only available for people if they’ve also had a diagnosis of diabetes, hypertension or both.

“Obesity can lead to health complications and lower quality of life,” says Campo. “People living with obesity deserve access to comprehensive care, in the same way that care would be provided for other chronic conditions.”

 Lilly is now calling for the Government and the NHS to create a holistic strategy that encompasses prevention, education, and adequate services for people who are already overweight or obese.

“There needs to be a core level of support that people living with obesity can expect when they see their GP,” says Campo. “We need more education for healthcare professionals, to support them in how to talk about weight with patients in an empathetic and constructive way. And we need to reframe the narrative around obesity. It isn’t an individual problem, it’s a societal problem.”

To achieve that, collaboration is essential. Government, healthcare professionals and non-governmental organisations must work together to deliver better healthcare outcomes for those living with obesity today and prevent future generations suffering from obesity. If they’re successful, the UK can look forward to a healthier future.

PP-LD-GB-2387 March 2024