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Anyone who’s even glanced in the direction of a newspaper recently will know that Britain is apparently in the middle of a so-called ‘obesity epidemic’.

Last week, the UK Government’s Foresight Group weighed in on the matter (no pun intended) with one of the most comprehensive studies ever done on the topic.

The report looked at the scientific evidence on obesity so far, and made evidence-based predictions for the weight of the nation, 40 years ahead. It makes for uneasy reading – here’s a small sample of the statistics from the report:

  • By 2050, at least half of all people in the country will be obese, including 60% of men and 40% of women.
  • A quarter of all children under 16 could be obese.
  • Obesity-related diseases, including cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes will take a £45.5 billion toll on the economy, and the burden on a struggling NHS will rise by seven times.
  • Obesity goes hand-in-hand with poverty and it’s most common in the most disadvantaged parts of society

The causes of obesity

The report’s main strength is that it champions the long-held scientific point of view that obesity is a societal problem, not just a personal one. It coins the term ‘passive obesity’, to stress that people don’t become obese overnight, but gradually accumulate small amounts of weight over time.

We are victims of our own evolution, which has predisposed us to make full use of available sources of food in anticipation of times of hardship. These predispositions are mainly genetic in nature, and their effects are masked in times where food is scarce, such as post-war Britain.

The situation today is very different and opportunities for overeating and being inactive are common. Thrust into this ‘obesogenic’ environment, our predispositions to put on weight have been clearly revealed.

And this is the crux of the argument – obesity is not a simple condition. Its causes are complex and it is naïve and unhelpful to attribute the problem solely to weak willpower or a tendency to overindulge.

Personal responsibility is obviously important, but it’s being overwhelmed by the modern environment. Yes, it does come down to eating too much and doing too little, but there are several factors that underlie this imbalance.

Solving the problem

If obesity is a social problem, it will take social solutions. Every part of society needs to be involved, including government, industries, communities and families. Individual choice is only the tip of a massive iceberg of measures that need to be put in place to lower the national BMI.

Safe, well-lit streets will encourage walking and playing outside. Food labelling policies, appropriate taxing and advertising regulations can draw attention towards healthy foods and away from those high in fat, salt and sugar. Regular monitoring of our children’s weight will help to encourage healthy behaviours at an early age.

One of the major challenges we face is that we still don’t know what the most effective solutions are. For all the attention drawn to the issue by the likes of Jamie Oliver, it’s still unclear which interventions will do the most good. It obviously won’t do to sit idly while we find out, so any new measures must be carefully designed and evaluated so we can learn as we go along.

One thing is clear – the UK is in for the long haul. The report stresses that the current climb towards an obese majority will take at least 30 years to reverse. We need long-term commitment.

A global problem

The Foresight report was not all doom and gloom – it even had a tinge of the inspirational about it. It likens the obesity challenge to that of climate change – solutions to both will require a strong scientific foundation and action from all levels of society.

The report also highlighted that many choices are good for both personal and planetary health. Efforts to promote walking over driving, for example, will both boost physical activity and lower carbon emissions.

Almost every country in the world is getting fatter, even those where malnutrition is common. So it’s not a problem that the UK faces alone, but it’s one we can lead on. No other country has so far developed a unified approach to tackling the problem of obesity and that gives the UK the opportunity to be global pioneers in this field.

And since obesity is the second biggest avoidable cause of cancer after smoking, it is up to Cancer Research UK to do its part, by: