Updated 10 November 2015

Obesity: who is to blame?

A new UK government report into obesity has reignited the debate over who should take responsibility for the growing epidemic.


The British Department of Health (DoH) report, which forecasts what levels of obesity in England may be in 2010 if current trends in obesity prevalence continue unchanged, makes for frightening reading.

More than 12 million adults and 1 million children will be obese by 2010, and the growing obesity crisis is expected to cause thousands more people to suffer related diseases like cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

Obesity among boys stood at 17 percent in 2003 and is predicted to rise to 19 percent by 2010, while among girls it is expected to increase from 16 to 22 percent. One in three men will be dangerously overweight by 2010.

Call for more government action

Some groups are using these figures to demand more government action. "The government must deliver the big changes that we need for real difference to be achieved," said Maura Gillespie, head of policy and public affairs at the British Heart Foundation.

"We are demanding the government place restrictions on advertising junk food to children before the 9pm watershed - a policy that can only have a positive impact on young people's attitudes to foods high in fat, sugar and salt."

From this perspective, both regulators and the food industry are not doing enough to tackle the problem. Indeed, the publication of the DoH's report comes the same month as US paediatrician Robert Lustig, MD, from the University of California, San Francisco said that the "toxic environment" of western diets causes hormonal imbalances that encourage overeating.

The comments were heavily publicised by many consumer news services, piling further blame onto food manufacturers.

Activity, diet addressed

But while the eye-watering figures have been pounced upon as proof that both government and industry are failing to make in-roads in tackling obesity - the report also comes shortly after three watchdogs warned that the government would miss its target for halting the rise in childhood obesity rates by 2010 without clearer leadership - some believe that at least the underlying causes of the epidemic are now being discussed.

"A key part of any programme to affect lifestyle change is getting people to understand that they need to balance the calories they take in with the calories they expend through exercise," said Food and Drink Federation director of communications Julian Hunt.

"So, we welcome news that the public health minister Caroline Flint is now looking at both activity and diet, something that industry has been urging government to do."

From this perspective, the DoH figures, while alarming, underline the growing acceptance that food is but one factor in the obesity crisis. Consumers must take some responsibility in understanding the importance of a balanced diet.

This view is increasingly finding voice in government.

Individual responsible, too

"Tackling obesity is a government-wide priority," a DoH spokesman recently told The Independent newspaper. "But every individual has responsibility for their own health."

Indeed, the FDF contends that the industry is already addressing these issues.

"Government has rightly made obesity a public health priority," said Hunt.

"But there is no silver bullet that can be fired at this problem; it will only be resolved by encouraging consumers to make sensible lifestyle choices. This is something about which both industry and government agree." - (Decision News Media, August 2006)

Read more:

China: alarming rise in obesity

SA snack tax urged to fight obesity


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