Pressure grows on government to act on obesity as figures show effect on health and the NHS

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 22 February 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1218
  1. Matthew Limb
  1. 1London

The government is coming under increasing pressure to change its approach to tackling obesity, as figures show that hospital admissions for obesity are rising and that the general population is ignoring advice on healthy diet and exercise levels.

The number of inpatient admissions with a primary diagnosis of obesity reached 11 736 in 2011-12, according to a report from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC), published on 20 February.1 This number is a 1% increase on admissions in the previous year (11 570 in 2010-11), triple the number five years ago (3860 in 2006-07), and 11 times the number 10 years ago (1019 in 2001-02). In 2011-12, female admissions for obesity were almost three times higher than male admissions (8740 v 2990).

The numbers of bariatric surgical procedures, including stomach stapling and gastric bypass, rose from 8090 in 2010-11 to 8790 in 2011-12, or nearly 9%, the report said.

The HSCIC has drawn on different sources to present a range of information on obesity, physical activity levels, trends in consumption of food and drink, and energy intake.

The centre found that in 2011-12, 37% of adults in England were classed as normal weight (body mass index ≥18.5 to <25). About one in 10 pupils (9.5%) aged 4-5 years were classified as obese, according to criteria of the British Growth Reference. About a fifth of pupils (19.2%) aged 10-11 years were also classified as obese.

Tim Straughan, chief executive of the HSCIC, said that the report was important because it brought clarity to a high profile issue and showed how obesity was affecting people, patients, and the NHS. “It will be of interest to the public as well as health professionals and policymakers,” he said.

The report was published two days after a report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges2 called for a new campaign on obesity and highlighted the overall ineffectiveness of obesity programmes in the United Kingdom, despite some praiseworthy isolated initiatives by successive governments.

The academy’s 10 point action plan included a plea for a 20% increase in the prices of sugary soft drinks to be piloted. It is recommended that no more than 11% of energy should come from added sugars and sugars from processed foods, but the HSCIC’s report found that these levels were exceeded in all age groups. In children aged 11-18 years, these sugars accounted for 15.3% of dietary energy.

The report added that 20 years ago, half of women aged 16 years and over were at a “normal” weight, but this proportion had fallen to 39% by 2011. For men, the proportion had dropped from 41% to 31%. In 2011, 26% of women and 24% of men were classed as obese, while 58% of women and 65% of men were classed as either overweight or obese.

Graham Rowan, chairman of the Obesity Management Association, said: “The obesity epidemic is getting worse by the day and steadily spiralling out of control.

“This is why we urgently need to look for alternative solutions, encouraging and empowering individuals to take personal responsibility for their weight, working closely with weight management professionals—outside of GPs’ surgeries and hospitals—to deliver long term change that lasts.”

Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said that Britain was in the grip of a “nutritional recession”—with rising food prices and shrinking incomes driving up the consumption of fatty foods and reducing the amount of fruit and vegetables bought—and that radical change was needed.

The HSCIC report shows that household purchases of fresh and processed vegetables were 2.4% lower in 2011 than in 2008, and the purchase of fresh green vegetables was 6.6% lower. While overall purchases of fruit and vegetables fell, consumers actually spent 8.1% more on fresh and processed vegetables and 6.9% more on fresh and processed fruit over the same time period.

“I think it’s time that action was taken on huge ‘drink it now’ cinema soft drinks and also the explosion of junk food vending machines in schools,” Abbott said.


Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1218