What, in your opinion, are the causes of the obesity ‘epidemic’ in the UK?

Published: 2019/12/11 Number of words: 1628


Obesity is a cause of growing concern amongst the healthcare policymakers throughout the world. In the UK, this healthcare issue has attracted the attention of the Department of Health (DH) after a series of articles published by Lancet on the growing prevalence of obesity amongst British residents. In this essay, a number of underlying factors are identified, ranging from maternal behaviour during pregnancy to the preference of an individual for commutation. However, a graver concern is that the UK Government is showing helplessness in combating the obesity epidemic in the absence of any role-model. Further, this essay also finds that the need to recognise anti-obesity policies as an interdisciplinary analysis is missing from the present interventions.


There is general agreement that obesity is one of the most significant public health threats in the UK (Gortmaker et al., 2011; Reilly et al., 2005; Stamatakis et al., 2005). The latest health survey undertaken by the DH in 2010 revealed that 62.8 per cent of adults and 30.3 per cent of children were overweight with an increased Body Mass Index (BMI) (DH, 2012). The gravity of the present trend was expressed in the article ‘Half of the UK obese by 2030’ by the National Health Services (NHS) in which the author highlighted the concern about increased health costs and medical complications associated with obesity (NHS, 2011). There, however, is consensus among most authors that in order to reduce the prevalence of obesity, it is crucial to explore its causes. This essay, therefore aims to provide an overview of the non-genetic and non-medical etiological factors contributing to the obesity epidemic in the UK.

The prevalence of childhood obesity doubled or trebled from the 1970s to the 1990s in the UK and is a major concern for the anti-obesity policy makers in the UK (Han et al., 2010). A significant relationship between intrauterine, perinatal, and early childhood environments and adult obesity has been established (Reilly et al., 2005). Family income (Stamatakis et al., 2005), maternal smoking during weeks 28 to 32 of gestation (Reilly et al., 2005), genetically shared familial characteristics (Han et al., 2010), infant formula feeding (Reilly et al., 2005) and a high birth weight (Han et al., 2010) are the factors found to be associated with adult obesity later in life. In their quantitative study, Stamatakis et al. (2005) found that obesity in children between five and ten years is associated with lower-income families, especially during infancy. The researchers have attributed this to financial constraints precluding a healthy diet and less of an inclination for healthy lifestyles. However, the socio-economic status when coupled with other factors such as prolonged sedentary behaviour, reduced sleep duration or unhealthy dietary intake, can be more perilous to the health of children in the five- to ten-year age-group. Reilly et al. (2005) noted that excessive television watching not only leads to less playtime but also increases the intake of foods high in carbohydrates, fat and sugar. This reduces the duration of sleep of the children in this age-group, leading to imbalanced consumption and digestion cycles. All these factors may indicate bad parenting but according to National Consumer Council, today’s children are also strongly influenced by the messages inherent in contemporary food advertising (Vlad, 2003). The global food system has shifted from individual to mass production and is amplified with the production of highly processed food sold with effective marketing techniques (Gortmaker et al., 2011). This has changed the consumption patterns of children and adults in the UK. Childhood obesity is a predictor of an individual’s health in the adult stages of life when there are myriads of other factors adding to the issues of overweight.

Various factors − environmental and behavioural − in adult life have led to an increase in the NHS’s indirect cost of obesity to £2 billion (Vlad, 2003) in the UK. According to Han et al. (2010), the present epidemic of obesity is the result of a convergence of technological and biological forces with the evolution of consumer markets worldwide and the New Public Market in the UK. The reasons vary from increased usage of home appliances to decreased energy in the workplace. The Health Development Agency clearly pronounced that individuals’ level of activity has been reduced due to heightened usage of modern appliances such as central heating and dishwashers (Vlad, 2003). Similarly, it has been noted that in the last two decades, the number of people working in the manufacturing industry has declined considerably (Lang-Rayner, 2007). This implies less physical activity both at home and in the workplace compared to the circumstances two decades ago. Further, the change in patterns of food consumption has disturbed the energy balance of an individual’s body (Gortmaker et al., 2011). Gortmaker et al. (2011) identified several other behavioural factors − such as preference for locomotion, alcohol abuse, excessive consumption of energy-dense foods and increased sedentary time − that lead to obesity in adults. A Welsh case study by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC, 2012) found that most people do not make responsible choices, with an ill-effect on their health. It therefore attributed a lack of general awareness as one of the most common causes of non-genetic, non-medical adult obesity. Other causes of the obesity epidemic relate to the present economic situation in the UK, such as an increase in unemployment and poverty (Vlad, 2003).

Further, according to several researchers (Gortmaker et al., 2011; Reilly et al., 2005; Vlad, 2003), the present trend of obesity prevalence is a reflection of the unsuccessful policy frameworks of the UK Government. Lang and Rayner (2007) have termed this as ‘policy cacophony – noise drowning out symphony of effort’ (p.166) because, according to them, the UK Government is failing to recognise that plans to deal with the obesity epidemic require an interdisciplinary analysis along with a society-wide primary care programme approach. Instead the Government is mainly recognising obesity as an issue of heightened healthcare and health insurance costs (Lang-Rayner, 2007). The Government is also found to be helpless while pondering policies that take away from the people the liberty of their choices of food consumption (Stamatakis et al., 2005).


To conclude, the causes of the obesity epidemic in the UK are spread across various sectors like agriculture, marketing, transportation and healthcare. In the author’s opinion, the cause of the epidemic of obesity in the UK is a combination of all these factors and behavioural changes in the UK residents. There seems to be a multifaceted, vast, complex and interconnected association that has resulted in the average British person being 19 kilograms heavier than their counterparts 50 years ago (BBC, 2012). However, ineffective anti-obesity Government healthcare policies and interventions are also severely adding to the present epidemic of increasing waist size.


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