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In Brief: Obesity

Image by Pixel Youth movement / Alamy Stock Photo

4 min read

In an occasional series, staff from Parliament’s libraries give The House choice nuggets from the archives. This week, Professor Grant Hill-Cawthorne, House of Commons librarian and managing director of research and information, looks at the UK’s obesity problem

One of the most-read House of Commons Library briefings is on obesity statistics in the United Kingdom. The weight of the nation is clearly an important topic to many, and when you look at those statistics it is not difficult to see why. NHS data shows that almost three-quarters of people aged 45 to 74 in England are overweight or obese, and this figure appears to remain consistent from year to year.  

Concerns about obesity levels have been gaining traction in recent decades. The technological revolution of the 20th century brought with it highly processed foods and motorised transport – blamed for our highly calorific diets and often-sedentary lifestyles, respectively. Unhealthy eating and lack of exercise are seen as the most common causes of obesity, although there is increasing understanding of other factors that can contribute, such as long-term illness, disability and genetics. 

The prevalence of obesity or of being overweight is 14 percentage points higher in the most deprived areas of England compared with the least deprived ones. 

Areas of deprivation tend to have more readily available low-cost fast food and takeaways, as well as fewer parks or green spaces, making it more difficult to exercise. Low-income households may also struggle to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, which are often more expensive than highly processed alternatives. 

The risks associated with obesity are stark. Research shows that it can significantly impact quality of life, to the extent that it may even reduce lifespan. Health problems can include diabetes or heart failure among others, but factors such as depression and low self-esteem may also affect people’s wellbeing.

Obesity touches the lives of millions of people, as well as impacting the health service. With health outcomes worsened for those affected, it is a challenge that must be addressed by health professionals. So what treatments are on offer? The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) recommends changes to diet and lifestyle initially, and pharmacological or surgical interventions only once those suggestions have been attempted. 

With a significant prevalence in our populations, obesity is an issue which is not going away

Social prescribing is one option practitioners can use to support people with lifestyle changes. It works by linking people with community groups and activities, such as exercise sessions, to help them develop networks and interests that support a healthy lifestyle. While this may be seen as a departure from the traditional role of the GP, the UK government has encouraged social prescribing in its 2020 anti-obesity strategy as a way of helping people to keep fit.

Drugs have become the latest apparent trend for those trying to lose weight. With celebrity endorsements on social media, news reports have highlighted increasing numbers of people using diabetes drug Ozempic (a semaglutide) to lose weight quickly. Ozempic is licenced for use in the treatment of diabetes in the UK, but in March this year, Nice recommended that semaglutides could be used to support weight management for patients with at least one weight-related comorbidity.  Wegovy (the same drug as Ozempic, but at a different dosage and sold under a different brand) is licenced for use in weight management in the UK. 

However, the unlicensed prescribing of Ozempic to effect weight loss appears to have contributed to supply problems. The lack of availability is subsequently a real challenge for those using the drug to treat diabetes, its intended use.

With a significant prevalence in our populations, obesity is an issue which is not going away. Addressing the problem while also ensuring that people are not stigmatised as a result of their size is an additional challenge. And while we have treatments available, addressing the cause of the problem as well as treating the symptoms is clearly necessary. 

Read the House of Commons Library briefing Obesity Policy in England by Bukky Balogun, and Obesity Statistics by Carl Baker. Find more topical research on a whole range of subjects on the House of Commons Library website

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