COUNTY DURHAM and the Tees Valley has the country's worst obesity problem, according to new research.

More than one in four adults in the region are obese, compared with a national average of one in five.

The Department of Health figures show that 27.3 per cent of people over 16 in the area are obese, six per cent higher than the national average.

The second worst region is Yorkshire, with 26.1 per cent.

The figures add to health concerns in County Durham and the Tees Valley, which has historically had a high number of patients with long-standing smoking and drinking-related illnesses.

Yesterday, Professor John Hamilton, a University of Durham academic, said obesity rates were exacerbated by economic deprivation and poor education.

The figures are more shocking, when compared to the rates in this region ten years ago. In the mid-1990s, the area had an obesity rate of 16.5 per cent, the national average at the time.

The Government has made tackling obesity a top priority, which is being implemented by local health organisations.

Less than three weeks ago, Darlington Primary Care Trust published a report that sets out ways of cutting obesity, cancer, strokes, suicide, pregnacies in the under-18s and sexually transmitted diseases by 2010. The targets were set to meet national Government directives.

Prof Hamilton, academic director of medicine at the university's Stockton campus, said: "Levels of obesity have been going up steadily for a while now. One of the factors is that there is not a very varied choice of diet for some people.

"There is a tendency among some groups to eat more high-calorie foods rather than fruit and vegetables."

The regions are ranked by strategic health authority area and based on body mass index, which is calculated by dividing a person's weight in kilograms by the square of his or her height in metres.

Prof Hamilton said the figures could be even worse if under-16s were included.

He said: "Research carried out here tends to show that children are eating more calories than they did years ago and doing less exercise."

Peter Kelly, director of public health at Middlesbrough Primary Care Trust (PCT), said: "We have two priorities here, obesity and smoking."

He said the PCT was running schemes, including free swimming for children in school holidays, GP referrals to weight loss programmes, and fun runs, as well as funding community groups that are working to reduce obesity in Middlesbrough