The World Health Organisation (WHO) has named the UK as the fourth-worst country for obesity, in a report that revealed the disease leads to 1.2m deaths annually in European countries.
The report also found that obesity is directly responsible for 200,000 cancer cases each year in Europe, saying it has reached “epidemic proportions.”
It can be a cause of 13 types of cancer, including in the kidney and liver.
“Obesity is a disease, not just a risk factor,” the report stated. It found that no single member state in the European region is on track to halt the rise of obesity and diabetes.
The UK has an obesity strategy to reduce the amount of overweight adults and children in the country, with it recently implementing a controversial law forcing large restaurants and cafes to include calorie amounts on their menus.
However, the WHO report found that obesity affects 59% of adults in the UK, and 63% of adults were obese in 2018.
The report’s data also showed that in many countries, including the UK, more boys under 18 than girls don’t eat fruit or vegetables every day.
Professor Jane Ogden, a health psychologist at the University of Surrey, said: “Obesity is a product of things in the environment that make us overeat and under exercise and the way that we think about food. I think what has happened in the UK is that we have an environment that encourages us to be sedentary, so we use our car, we don’t walk, we sit at our desks. On top of that, the world around us encourages us to eat more.
“Throughout our childhood food is used as a reward, as a way of managing behaviour. There’s language around food that makes it either forbidden or a treat, and because of that we eat more.”
The report recommends a “high-level political commitment” to tackling obesity alongside sugar tax on sweet drinks and subsidies on healthy food.
In 2019/20, there was a 17% increase in hospital admissions for health issues relating to obesity from the previous year.
The WHO report also claimed that Covid-19 has had a negative effect on eating patterns and physical activities, saying: “It will have lasting effects on people’s health for many years and will need significant effort to reverse.”
It also placed emphasis on supporting lower socioeconomic groups because they face more constraints and limitations in eating healthily.
Dr Ogden agrees with this, saying: “There’s a lot of issues around food poverty and people not having the money to buy the right kinds of food and that pushes people toward eating takeaways, which are high in fat, and although they cost more in the long term, if people don’t have the right cooking and eating facilities then they can’t prepare the food in the right kinds of ways.”
She also said that British culture isn’t great when it comes to buying and cooking food, leading to an “explosion” of food delivery apps.
“It’s all exacerbated in a kind of perfect storm.”
The report also noted the contribution of meal delivery apps like Uber Eats and Just Eat to the rise of obesity, saying the apps often lead to overordering and overconsumption.
This links to eating out, where the report said people who dine out eat 200 more calories than they would at home, on average.
It also found that while active video games can help children get more active, they aren’t a substitute for physical activities.
When asked what the UK could do to tackle obesity, Dr Ogden said a good way to combat this could be to stop the food industry from overloading people with food with buy one get one free deals, and to make healthy food cheaper.
She said: “We need to work out a way to do this without stigmatising. It should be about everybody being more active and everybody eating well – creating that as a culture.
“But a lot of it is a cultural thing. For a long time we haven’t been big on cooking and we seem to have become more sedentary, perhaps more than other cultures.”