Facts and figures on obesity

This information is aimed at healthcare professionals and others wanting to find out about the government’s policy and work on obesity. If you are looking for advice about losing weight and a healthy lifestyle, visit the ‘Lose weight’ section on NHS Choices.

What is obesity?

‘Obesity’ is a clinical term used to describe excess body fat associated with increased risks to health. Being obese can increase the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. Not only does obesity affect people’s health, their lives and the lives of their families, but it places a large financial burden on the NHS and the wider economy.

Obesity figures

The prevalence of obesity in England has more than tripled in the last 25 years – find out more about obesity trends on the National Obesity Observatory website.

The latest Health Survey for England (HSE) data shows that in England in 2010:

  • 62.8% of adults (aged 16 or over) were overweight or obese
  • 30.3% of children (aged 2-15) were overweight or obese
  • 26.1% of all adults and 16% of all children were obese

Foresight’s Tackling Obesities: Future Choices report, published in October 2007, predicted that if no action was taken, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children in Britain would be obese by 2050. Recently reported modelling suggests that without action 41-48% of men and 35-43% of women could be obese by 2030.

See the Health Survey for England 2010 trend tables.

Measuring obesity

The most common method of measuring obesity is calculating an individual’s Body Mass Index (BMI). This is calculated by dividing a person’s weight measurement (in kilograms) by the square of their height (in metres). See the BMI healthy weight calculator on the NHS Choices site.

In adults, a BMI of 25 to 29.9 means that person is considered to be overweight, and a BMI of 30 or above means that person is considered to be obese.

In children and adolescents, BMI varies with age and sex, so the BMI score for children and adolescents is related to the UK 1990 BMI growth reference charts in order to determine a child’s weight status.

BMI is the best way we have to measure the prevalence of obesity at the population level. No specialised equipment is needed and therefore it is easy to measure accurately and consistently across large populations. BMI is also widely used around the world, which enables comparisons between countries, regions and population sub-groups.

For most people, their BMI correlates well with their level of body fat. However, certain factors such as fitness and ethnic origin can sometimes alter the relationship between BMI and body fatness. So then other measurements such as waist circumference and skin fold thickness can also be collected to confirm an individual person’s weight status.

Find out more about measuring obesity on the National Obesity Observatory site.

Causes of obesity

Becoming overweight or obese is the result of eating more calories than needed and/or undertaking too little physical activity to match calorie intake. This energy imbalance is driven by a complex web of environmental, physiological and behavioural factors.

It is clear, however, that reducing overall energy intake is key to losing weight. Increasing physical activity can also be helpful alongside calorie reduction in achieving weight loss and sustaining a healthy body weight, as well as improving overall health.

Find out more about the causes of obesity on the National Obesity Observatory website.

Impact of obesity

Being obese or overweight brings significant risks at a range of different points throughout life. The health risks for adults are stark. We know that, compared with a healthy weight man, an obese man is:

  • five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes
  • three times more likely to develop cancer of the colon
  • more than two and a half times more likely to develop high blood pressure – a major risk factor for stroke and heart disease

An obese woman, compared with a healthy weight woman, is:

  • almost 13 times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes
  • more than four times more likely to develop high blood pressure
  • more than three times more likely to have a heart attack

Find out more about the risks associated with obesity on the National Obesity Observatory site.

Given the impact on individual health, obese and overweight individuals can place a significant burden on the NHS, with direct costs estimated to be £5.1 billion per year. But there are also costs to society and the economy more broadly – for example, sickness absence reduces productivity. Foresight’s Tackling Obesities: Future Choices report estimated that weight problems already cost the wider economy in the region of £16 billion, and that this could rise to £50 billion per year by 2050 if left unchecked.

Tackling obesity

The Department of Health has published a follow-on document to the Public Health White Paper called ‘Healthy lives, healthy people: A call to action on obesity in England’, which sets new national ambitions for a downward trend in excess weight by 2020.

These ambitions underline the importance of taking a ‘life course’ approach – as recommended by Foresight’s Tackling Obesities: Future Choices report. With such a high proportion of adults already overweight or obese, we cannot afford to focus simply on prevention, but must also tackle the potentially grave consequences of existing excess weight.

The Department of Health is providing national leadership by continuing to work with businesses and non-government organisations (NGOs), and ensuring that action across government supports the overall approach to encourage healthy eating choices and more active lifestyles – including the huge opportunity to promote physical activity presented by the 2012 London Olympics.

We are continuing to invest in Change4Life as a direct way of supporting people to make healthier choices. The Department has also published a Change4Life three year social marketing strategy (2011-14).

The White Paper also recognises the importance of local leadership, and as part of the new public health system, local authorities will have a new enhanced role. Supported by a ring-fenced budget, they will bring together local partners, along with the NHS, to address public health issues including obesity.

While individuals need to make their own decisions about how they live their lives, it is important that people have the opportunity to make healthier choices for themselves and their families – to do this everyone has a role to play.

Multinational food and drink corporations, physical activity and sport organisations, NGOs, employers and local NHS staff all need to work together to help communicate the messages about why we need to look at our individual lifestyles, but also to change the environment so the healthier choice becomes the easier choice.

Food and drink industry

The food and drink industry is being asked to play a greater and leading role (alongside government, NGOs and others) in supporting people to make healthier choices.

Many businesses have already made voluntary commitments to play their part in improving public health through the Responsibility Deal. These commitments include food pledges on calorie reduction and calorie labelling on menus.

National Child Measurement Programme

The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) is overseen by the Department’s obesity team. As part of the programme, children in Reception Year (ages 4-5) and Year 6 (ages 10-11) are weighed and measured at school. The information is used to compile data about children’s growth and obesity levels, and to help the NHS plan and provide better health services for children.

Advice on weight and lifestyle

You can find advice on losing weight on NHS Choices and healthy living tips on the Change4Life site.

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