The government must address the root cause of obesity: inequality
People in poorer socioeconomic groups and those with inadequate access to weight management services are being let down. We must do more to prevent and treat Britain’s obesity problem
We need a serious rethink about how we manage this country’s obesity epidemic. We can no longer afford to keep making it difficult for people who want help to lose weight.
That’s what approximately 100 campaigners, clinicians and patients told the APPG on Obesity’s recent inquiry, ‘The Future of Obesity Services’.
When I became chair of the APPG in January (if you can remember that far back), I never expected obesity to feature so prominently on the health policy agenda. That awareness flows from a Public Health England report published in July, showing the tragic reality that people categorised as obese are 40% more likely to die from Covid-19 than those of a lower weight.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK has the highest prevalence of obesity in Western Europe and this figure is rising.
This has put the population at great risk and it is absolutely right that the Prime Minister and the government responded to this threat with a new obesity strategy in July. As I wrote at the time, the APPG supported all the measures announced and continues to do so. I want to see these proposals implemented as quickly as possible with no watering down, and I am glad the government is making progress on this.
But this doesn’t solve the problem on its own. The government needs to go further to address obesity in the long term. The main challenge we face is inequality. I was surprised to see statistics compiled by The Food Foundation showing that the poorest 10% of UK households would need to spend 74% of their income to meet the Eatwell Guide costs.
With the pressures of daily life and the cheaper availability of unhealthier products, it is no wonder people in poorer socioeconomic groups have higher levels of obesity.
Reducing inequalities is, therefore, fundamental to how we should address obesity. The government first needs to examine all inequalities which contribute to and are affected by obesity. This will enable the design of tailored strategies in underserviced communities. They should also bring in expertise in work, education, transport, housing, planning and culture to enable healthy living in all walks of life.
The second inequality is access to weight management services. People with obesity in some areas of the country can’t currently access the appropriate level of support because services aren’t there. Ideally, November’s Spending Review would have provided funding for this and ensure equitable access for all. In its absence, we need to act to make sure people can access what already exists.
The NHS system for treating patients to reduce their weight is too inflexible and can actually hinder patients from receiving the support they really need. Why is it that a patient with morbid obesity must be provided with diet and exercise advice before they would even be eligible for psychological support or bariatric surgery? Resources could be better used by allowing patients to go straight to the most appropriate service for their particular situation.
Health and care professionals always want to do the best by their patients. So let’s give them the tools to do this by providing more information about what services exist and making these services more accessible at the right time.
The APPG’s report sets out key principles for designing and delivering these vital services. We have a great opportunity with integrated care systems to provide a holistic approach to weight management that covers both prevention and treatment. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity and we look forward to working with ministers on this.
Mary Glindon is Labour MP for North Tyneside and chair of the APPG on Obesity
This article, inquiry and report have been drafted by the secretariat of the APPG on Obesity and finalised with the chair of the APPG on Obesity, who has editorial control. The secretariat of the APPG on Obesity is provided by Healthcomms Consulting with financial support from Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Novo Nordisk. These companies have no influence over the work of the secretariat and had no influence over the content of this article, inquiry, and report. Further details are on the APPG register and the Obesity APPG website.