Whatever happened to the obesity timebomb?

The latest figures suggest that Britain’s waistlines are no longer expanding. Why are there no celebratory headlines?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘We cannot afford not to act [on obesity]. For the first time we are clear about the magnitude of the problem. We are facing a potential crisis on the scale of climate change and it is in everybody’s interest to turn things round. We will succeed only if the problem is recognised, owned and addressed at every level in every part of society.’

So said the then health secretary for England, Alan Johnson, back in October 2007, commenting on the launch of a report by the UK government’s Foresight project. The report declared: ‘By 2050, Foresight modelling indicates that 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and about 25 per cent of all children under 16 could be obese. Obesity increases the risk of a range of chronic diseases, particularly type-2 diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease and also cancer and arthritis. The financial impact to society attributable to obesity, at current prices, is estimated to become an additional £45.5 billion per year by 2050 with a seven-fold increase in NHS [National Health Service] costs alone.’

Scary stuff. So what’s happened to obesity rates since then? Presumably, they’ve been heading almost vertically upwards with more and more of the population risking long-term health damage and even death as a result of their expanding waistlines. Errr, no.

According to the lastest results from the Health Survey for England, regarded as the best source of information on the topic, obesity rates have fallen. Yet you could have been forgiven for failing to notice: it’s barely been reported. After all the sensationalist headlines over the past few years about an ‘obesity timebomb’, would it be too much to expect some balanced reporting over the fact that the aforementioned explosive might not be going off after all?

The latest figures, published last Thursday, show that in 2009, 22.1 per cent of men were obese compared to 24.1 per cent in 2008 and 23.7 per cent in 2006, the year before that Foresight report was published. For women, the new figure was 23.9 per cent as against 24.9 per cent in 2008 and 24.2 per cent in 2006.

But what about the future? Perhaps our children are still getting fatter? Although the UK uses a rather broader definition of ‘child obesity’ than is standard internationally, the rates for this seem to be heading downwards, too. In 2004, 19.4 per cent of boys aged two to 15 were regarded as obese; in 2009, that figure was down to 16.1 per cent. The equivalent figures for girls were 18.5 per cent (2004) and 15.3 per cent (2009).

Of course, this is just one year’s figures, though the trends for children seem to be well-established. A pinch of salt must also be used with any such figures: this is a survey of just a few thousand people designed to be representative of the whole country, and any such survey must have a certain margin of error. Nonetheless, these latest figures suggest that the fears expressed in the Foresight report need to be, at the very least, tempered if not thoroughly revised.

We should also take gloomy claims about the health impacts of obesity with a sizeable pinch of salt. Carrying a few extra pounds is not a death sentence. In fact, there is little difference in life expectancy between people who are ‘normal’, ‘overweight’ or ‘mildly obese’.

Do the falling rates of obesity mean that the health authorities ought to be congratulated? Were the scary stories all worthwhile? It seems unlikely. A persistent moan from health campaigners and watchdogs has been that personal behaviour has changed little despite the panic about obesity. Jamie Oliver may have banged on about the dangerous state of the school meals we dish up to children, but actual uptake of school meals has never recovered to the levels prior to his televisual crusade.

Nor are we doing lots more exercise. The number of men meeting the recommended level of physical activity (39 per cent) is higher than in 2003 (36 per cent) but lower than in 2006 (40 per cent), though the number of women meeting these guidelines has risen very slightly. On the other hand, there is no way of measuring how much exercise people take than by simply asking them: maybe these figures reflect a trend among female survey respondents to exaggerate rather than a nationwide fashion for hitting the gym.

In fact, we are failing generally to comply with the government’s lectures about other lifestyle changes. For example, in 2004, 23 per cent of adults were active smokers. After years of lectures and a workplace smoking ban, the number of adults smoking was… 22 per cent. That’s hardly a vindication of the draconian measures taken to try to persuade us to give up. As for all those sermons about the need to get our ‘five-a-day’ portions of fruit and veg, the proportion of people doing so fell from 30 per cent in 2006 to 26 per cent in 2009.

None of this is to suggest that Britain doesn’t face health problems. For example, the new survey suggests that rates of doctor-diagnosed diabetes have more than doubled in the past 15 years. Even leaving aside that some of this will be due to doctors testing patients more often, it is still a worrying trend.

But the lessons are surely that we need to be wary of health panics, which are often greatly exaggerated, and more sceptical of the idea that endless government lecturing will somehow make the nation healthier.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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