Record number of obese Brits go under the knife | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 18.05.2013
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Record number of obese Brits go under the knife

A growing number of people in the UK increasingly need surgery because of life-threatening weight issues. Britain has the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, at great cost to the health system.

Britain has topped the European obesity charts for several years. Today, more than half of Brits are overweight or obese - despite efforts by successive governments to tackle this development. According to Britain's National Health Service (NHS), one of the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic in Britain is easy access to cheap, high-energy food that is often aggressively marketed to people.

The lobby group National Obesity Forum (NOF) notes that there is a connection between this supply of unhealthy food and a household's income. The worst obesity-related health problems are seen in the northern parts of England, in areas traditionally poorer than the south with a higher concentration of working class communities.

"In the poorer areas, you tend to find families with lower levels of education and they are not necessarily either able to cook or to know what good food is," NOF spokesman Tam Fry told DW. "So you come to rely on the processed food, laden with fat, salt and sugar - and because it is mass produced, it can be sold for the least amount of money. That of course suits very well the family who has a very small income."

A surgeon holds a stomach model to demonstrate gastric bypass surgery Foto: David Ebener dpa/lby

Many see gastric bypass surgery as a final resort

The latest NHS figures show that 61.3 percent of adults and 30 percent of children aged between two and 15 are obese. This month, new statistics showed record numbers of people required surgery to treat their obesity.

Gastric bypass surgery - where parts of the stomach are "tied off" - has increased by 530 percent in the past six years. In the northern city of Derby, 80 people in every 100,000 have had to undergo weight reduction surgery in the past year. In nearby Bassetlaw nearly 3,000 out of 100,000 had to go to hospital because of extreme weight issues - almost six times the national average.

Normal weight no longer the norm

To understand the levels of Britain's obesity problems, it might be easier to turn the statistics upside-down. February's NHS report showed that fewer than two in five adults, or 37 percent, in England were classed as "normal" weight according to body mass index. Half of women aged 16 and over were of normal weight in 1993, but this had fallen to 39 percent by 2011.

Dr. Sheena Bedi, Photo: Lars Bevanger

Dr Bedi helps people battle obesity issues

"Obesity is an epidemic that has become a public health issue," said Dr. Sheena Bedi, who runs a weight management clinic in the northern town of Bolton. "It's estimated that it's reducing life expectancy by about nine years."

According to Bedi, the issue is also a question of lifestyle in Britain. "I think we have less emphasis on healthy living, healthy lifestyles and healthy eating in this country than maybe people do in other parts of Europe," she said. "Unless you tackle the environment that people are exposed to, you won't be able to tackle the problem."

Political failure

Successive governments have tried and failed to deal with the growing obesity epidemic, which costs the health service six billion euros ($7.7 billion) every year. Obesity is fast becoming as serious and expensive a threat to public health as smoking and alcohol.

The center-right coalition government of Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has focused on the need to help individuals make the right choices for a healthier lifestyle through public health campaigns and advice. But campaigners say this stops short of addressing what they see as the real issue: the omnipresence of cheap, unhealthy foods and drinks.

"We have an oversupply of cheap sugary or energy-dense foods and that limits our ability to make healthy choices," said Dr. Aseem Malhotra, one of the authors of a 10-point anti-obesity plan presented by doctors to the government earlier this year. "I think the government has a duty and responsibility to regulate the food industry and protect its citizens from the manipulations and the excesses of the food industry."

Overweight children in an exercise class Foto: Waltraud Grubitzsch +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

Growing numbers of children are overweight

Malhotra and the report's co-authors proposed a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks and the banning of fast-food outlets near schools and hospitals. The food and drinks industry hit back, arguing more focus should be put on exercise and personal responsibility for diets.

Is a fat tax the answer?

Other European countries, like France, Norway, Denmark and Hungary, have introduced or experimented with so-called "fat taxes" on unhealthy food and drinks. Last year's UN high-level summit on non-communicable diseases recognized a role for food taxes.

Yet the UK government says there is still insufficient evidence such measures help lower obesity levels on a national scale. Others say a tax would punish poor people who also tend to be the ones suffering higher levels of obesity.

There is, however, agreement across the board that something must be done about Britain's obesity epidemic. A recent study from Oxford University predicted that a massive 80 percent of the population will be overweight or obese by 2050 if nothing is done.

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