It is a common perception that the UK is in the midst of an obesity crisis. Regularly labelled as ‘the fat man of Europe’ in the press and met with stark and harrowing figures about the percentage of overweight individuals in Britain, it’s no surprise that the public perception of obesity in the UK is that it has reached epidemic levels. The consequences of obesity on our health can include diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and people dying needlessly from avoidable diseases, so it is most certainly not a matter to be taken lightly. However, a report published by NHS Digital has actually shown that the obesity rate of the UK, whilst still high, has remained largely similar since 2010. This article will seek to answer several questions regarding the current state of obesity in Britain, whether or not the public perception is accurate and what we can do to combat this public health issue.
Is the UK fatter than ever? In the grand scheme of things, yes. Obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years, and it is estimated that by 2050 over half the population will be obese. A person is considered overweight if they have a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 29, and obese with a BMI of 30 and above. This statistic is pretty concerning for public health, but thanks to the NHS Digital survey, we can actually see that the percentage of adults who are overweight and obese, whilst standing at an arguably unreasonable percentage of 61%, hasn’t worsened or bettered since 2010. Therefore, the public perception that the UK is fatter, less healthy and less active than ever before is only half true. Whilst, yes, obesity levels are the highest they’ve ever been this decade, the percentage of overweight and obese adults in Britain has actually remained stagnant for the past few years.
The NHS Digital survey also found that, on average, only 62% of adults in the UK meet the national physical activity guidelines of at least 150 minutes of moderate activity, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, or an equivalent combination of both, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Why aren’t more people meeting these national physical activity guidelines? Studies have shown that the environment can have a major impact on overweight and obesity levels. Environmental factors known as "obesogenic environments" are said to have an astronomical effect on weight. These are places, often urban, that encourage unhealthy eating and inactivity.
Adults spend up to six hours a day on average engaging in sedentary activities - from reading, to watching tv and other low-energy past times. There is an increase in desk jobs and working hours, resulting in less opportunity for exercise throughout the day. Not only that, but thanks to the drastic improvements to technology, leisure time is increasingly spent indoors. Similarly, thanks to a more rigorous health and safety culture, time outdoors being active has decreased from decade to decade.
With the number of adults meeting the recommended weekly physical activity level declining, why is it that obesity levels in the UK are actually relatively static? This could be that whilst staying indoors and enjoying leisure activities that require no physical input is more common, there has also been a huge boost in the trend of healthy living. From vegetarianism to veganism and health foods in general, the online world has been promoting living a healthy lifestyle more than ever before. Through social media platforms like Instagram and various health and fitness bloggers, we are now more educated than ever about what type of foods are beneficial for us to put into our bodies. There are more resources on healthy living available for free and at the click of a button than ever before, should we choose to educate ourselves. Similarly, the public is more conscious than ever about being vegan or vegetarian. Young people in particular are switching to plant-based diets for health reasons, environmental reasons and thanks to an increasing compassion for animals and their welfare. This could well be a contributing factor to why obesity levels aren’t increasing as rapidly as we are led to believe,
To complement the growth in resources available to the public on how to maintain a healthy lifestyle, and in an attempt to combat the current obesity crisis in the UK, there is undeniably an opportunity for pharmacy within the sports nutrition market. According to the FDA, there are more than 29,000 different nutritional supplements on the market. With the correct knowledge and marketing strategy, the pharmaceutical industry could have a phenomenal impact in educating the general public on how to lose weight, improve their fitness levels and implement sports nutrition into their lifestyles with the overall goal of decreasing obesity rates in Britain.
According to market research company Euromonitor, UK sales of sports nutritionals will reach £471m in 2018 (a significant increase from the £301m recorded in 2013), while a YouGov survey found that one in 10 men used a sports supplement at least once a week during 2012. This proves the level of opportunity to be had within the sports nutrition market for the pharmaceutical industry.
What else can community pharmacy teams do to help promote a healthy lifestyle and decrease obesity rates in the UK? In order to reverse an obesity trend, society as a whole needs to adopt a new attitude to obesity. Education is the key, and whilst there is an endless stream of information on the internet for those who care to look - we need to look at ways of educating those who perhaps feel they don’t have the time, they don’t see the need or don’t understand the importance of knowing how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes more access to information including healthy meals and diet plans. Guidance for physical activity and more opportunities to do so. More encouragement for getting active throughout schools, in communities and for all ages. Improving the labelling of food and drink so that individuals can be more aware and make more conscious and healthy choices. Giving guidance to the public on physical activity and how much they should be doing. Encouraging both local business and conglomerate businesses to educate, label their food products with calories and dietary information and seek to promote a healthy lifestyle.
Minimising the obesity level in the UK will be an extremely arduous task and will require a dramatic shift in society as a whole, but it most certainly isn’t impossible. If we tackle obesity head on, we could see an end result of a boosted pharmaceutical economy, a longer life span, less strain on the NHS thanks to obesity-related conditions and generally healthier and happier lives for UK citizens.