NHS gender weight-loss bias is impacting men’s health, warns experts

Posted On: 
16th June 2017

The NHS should urgently tackle a ‘gender bias’ among health professionals as they appear to be reluctant to refer men to weight management services despite positive results, experts from the University of Oxford, Men’s Health Forum and Slimming World suggest. 

Men's Health Week has focussed on the dangers of carrying excess weight around the waist.
PA Images

Currently, men make up only one in 10 patients attending commercial weight management programmes like Slimming World through referral by the NHS and Local Authorities, despite being more likely to be overweight than women and more likely to carry dangerous excess fat around the waist.

Now a study of 940 patients by the University of Oxford has shown that when health professionals verbally offer referral to men and women equally, based on BMI and without the risk of gender bias, the proportion of referrals who are male jumps to nearly four in 10 – a rise of almost 400%.

Study author, Professor Paul Aveyard of the University of Oxford, said: “It looks like GPs and nurses are presuming that men would not want to use a commercial weight management programme, but our evidence suggests they would if health professionals offered it and recommended it.

“Our study found that an NHS referral and a simple recommendation like ‘I think this could be good for you’ is enough to persuade many men to cast aside any reservations they might have and to give a weight management group a try. And our data supports previous findings that when men do join these groups, they do very well – even better than women in fact. These schemes represent good value for the NHS.”

The findings were released at the start of Men’s Health Week (12-18 June), which is this year focusing on raising awareness of the dangers of carrying excess fat around the waist.

Tom Brake MP, Vice Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Men's Health, told PoliticsHome: “With nearly two thirds of men and over half of women in England now overweight or obese, tackling obesity is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

The Lib Dem MP added: “The evidence from this study speaks for itself. There are no easy solutions to the obesity problem but tackling this ‘gender bias’ is entirely in the hands of health professionals and strikes me as an easy win that could not only save billions for an already over-stretched NHS, but have an immediate impact in improving the well-being and life chances of millions of men across the UK.”

Martin Tod, Chief Executive of the Men’s Health Forum, added: "What this research shows is that it's not just men who need to change their attitudes about their weight - health professionals do too. Men who might benefit from weight management services are missing out because they're not being told about them.  Yet when they are told about them, many men do use them and, despite what might be expected, many men really benefit from them." 

Latest figures from NHS Digital show that 68% of men and 58% of women are overweight or obese, and yet weight worries are often associated more with women than men. This could be because men are less likely to vocalise them. Last year’s ‘Machobesity Report’, by Slimming World, revealed that while 95% of men want to lose weight, mainly for health reasons, men typically keep weight worries to themselves for more than six years on average.

Men’s health has been a topic of discussion in Westminster, with health experts and politicians debating how to address the issue at Slimming World’s inaugural Obesity Policy Workshop, held in March.

At the event, delegates recognised the need for a more gendered approach towards obesity and the way men and women view weight loss. They called for positive discrimination to encourage more men to get support to lose weight and a parliamentary working group around men’s health, agreeing men must be approached as a separate audience.

Slimming World agrees men’s health and weight loss must remain a high priority on the public health agenda.

Jenny Caven, Slimming World’s Head of External Affairs, says the new Government has a part to play in encouraging men to engage in evidence-based interventions.

“It’s refreshing to see this new research that addresses gender bias. Our Slimming World data shows that when men do join commercial weight management organisations they are very successful and lose more weight than women – 5.7% in 12 weeks compared to 4.3% - and attend more frequently.

“We are concerned that the Government has not undertaken enough radical action to tackle obesity and call for initiatives that will help men to seek support to lose weight and form new healthier habits.”