Think obesity isn’t your problem? With predictions that half of the UK population will be obese by 2050, it could have an impact on us all – and solving the problem is going to be a team effort. At the start of National Obesity Awareness Week, Abi Jackson reports

OBESITY, and its impact on health, is rarely out of the headlines these days. But if you think it is something that only overweight people should be concerned about, think again – it is predicted that 50 per cent of the UK population could be obese by 2050, with a cost just short of £50bn a year.

Tam Fry, a trustee of the National Obesity Forum (NOF) and chairman of the Child Growth Foundation, thinks the prediction is frightening – and the loss to the exchequer even more frightening.

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It is the National Health Service which will feel the bulk of this bill.

Between 1993 and 2011, obesity rates rose from 13 per cent to 24 per cent in men, and from 16 per cent to 26 per cent for women. In 2011-12, figures revealed that up to 20 per cent of children were in the obese category. Figures are even higher for people in the overweight range – 65 per cent of men and 58 per cent of women – and it’s already costing the National Health Service more than £6bn annually.

This is largely due to that fact that our rising weight is matched by stark rises in diseases, many of which are among the most common killers such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, including breast, bowel and kidney cancer.

Last summer, Lord McColl, former director of surgery at Guy’s Hospital, warned parliament that not only was obesity killing millions, but the epidemic was bankrupting the NHS.

On paper, obesity should be a simple problem to solve. As Mr Fry points out: ‘‘The rise in obesity is happening because, principally, the food we’re eating is less than healthy and we’re not exercising to burn it off. If you eat well and exercise, you will more than likely maintain a healthy weight. But if you eat badly and don’t exercise, the reverse will be the situation.’’ There you go. Consume less, move more, epidemic over.

But, in reality, it is not that simple. In fact, far from it, otherwise we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in.

According to the World Health Organisation, individual responsibility works best when people have access to a healthy lifestyle and are supported to make healthy choices.

This means making exercise and eating well accessible and affordable to everybody, and communicating effectively to get the right messages across, helping to remove the barriers that may prevent some people making sensible choices.

In recent years, the Government has launched a call to action, urging food and drinks companies to reformulate their products, reducing levels of fat, salt and sugar in them. But, so far, with a few exceptions, there has not been significant change, and Mr Fry thinks guidelines like this need to be made law.

‘‘The Government needs to stop pussy-footing around,’’ says Mr Fry. ‘They’ve got to start saying ‘You will produce good food, and unless you produce good food we will come down on you like a ton of bricks’ and that means legislation.

‘‘The whole premise behind the reformulation deal was that the industry would, of its own accord, reformulate products and help the Government get rid of the obesity problem,’’ he adds.

‘‘But, with very few exceptions, that’s not happening and we are getting fatter and fatter, and if some stance is not taken, dramatically, now, then we’re going to get in a stew.

‘‘The prediction that 50 per cent of the population was going to be obese by 2050 was made in 2007.

‘‘It was made quite apparent that we were sure to get to that unless action was taken. Five years down the line, that action still hasn’t been taken.’’ Not everybody will agree that forcing the food industry to change and, in effect, taking away consumers’ choice, is the way to go. But supporters of this school of thought will argue that the rise in calorie consumption is inherently linked to the rise in obesity and its health impact.

While it may sound patronising to some, often people are unaware that items they are feeding their children are packed with added sugars and salt. Dr Aseem Malhotra, a respected cardiologist who works in bariatrics, who is supporting the NOF’s National Obesity Awareness Week, this week, says: ‘‘It took 50 years from the first scientific studies linking smoking to lung cancer before any effective public health interventions were implemented, because the tobacco industry was able to implement a strategy of denial, planting doubt and confusing the public about the negative effects of its products.

‘‘We see the food industry adopting similar strategies, such as junk food companies sponsoring sporting events and athlete endorsements of sugary drinks with advertising that targets the most vulnerable members of society, including children.’’ The good news is that, if you are overweight or obese, it is never too late to address it and improve your health.

An eight-year British study, led by Dr Mark Hamer at University College London and published in November, found that elderly people who exercised regularly could benefit from improved mental and physical health, even if they took up being active later in life.