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2016 – The year to tackle the obesity time bomb

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In May 2015, the World Health Organisation concluded that as many as 74% of men and 64% of women would be obese by 2030. We are sitting on a public health time bomb.

The WHO’s conclusions were perhaps the most stark since the publication of the Foresight Report in 2007, which suggested that half the population could be overweight or obese by 2050.

The consequences of such an exponential increase in obesity are staggering. It would cripple an NHS that is already struggling to deal with the demands of a growing and ageing population. Primary and acute care would likely be overwhelmed, and would need investment beyond that demanded in the Five Year Forward View.

”We would almost certainly see huge increases in heart disease, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, mental health conditions, cancer and musculoskeletal problems”

And this is without considering the human cost.

We would almost certainly see huge increases in heart disease, diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, mental health conditions, cancer and musculoskeletal problems that are all associated with weight and obesity. Patients’ quality of life, and that of their families, would be irrevocably reduced.

The need for concerted action has been well noted by the likes of Simon Stevens and Dame Sally Davies. And of course the question is what should we do about a problem of such scale?

The answer is that a multi-faceted approach is required. Inevitably there is an urgent need for action at the highest levels of the NHS and of government.

Public Health England recently produced a particularly insightful report, offering a range of recommendations to tackle the obesity crisis that were endorsed by the Health Select Committee.

”There is an urgent need for action at the highest levels of the NHS and of government”

Ministers can ill-afford to ignore such thinking, and while top-down measures might smack of the ‘nanny state’, there is a necessity to help the public lower its consumption of foods high in fats, sugars and salts, while also facilitating greater levels of physical activity.

There is of course also a need to ensure that treatment options are in place to support people who are already overweight and obese. A report by McKinsey in 2014 noted the positive effect that surgical (where appropriate) and a range of non-surgical interventions can have on patients’ long-term health outcomes and reducing their ongoing need for clinical support.

And finally, there is a continuing need to educate the public and to encourage changes in behaviour.

But that cannot delivered in a didactic fashion, focusing on what they shouldn’t do. Instead health care professionals have a collective responsibility to provide guidance that shows the public how they can make lifestyle changes that do not compromise their perceived quality of life.

That means explaining and encouraging sensible changes in diet and how to be more physically active.

“Health care professionals have a collective responsibility to provide guidance”

This is something Public Health England, via the Change4Life campaign, have continued to do. And it’s an ethos the National Obesity Forum has followed through its promotion of National Obesity Awareness Week for the past two years.

This year, the awareness campaign has been rebranded as JanUary in the spirit of encouraging all members of the public, irrespective of their current health and weight, to do something good for their health.

The goal is to encourage the type of behavioural change that improves long-term health outcomes, and ultimately reduces obesity levels and demands on the NHS. And this is by promoting both a National New Year’s resolution, by which individuals and families commit to manageable lifestyle changes for 2016, and by promoting a sugar reduction challenge.

”I very much hope you will join us this year in encouraging patients to participate in these challenges”

The latter involves encouraging the public to make simple substitutions of products such as reducing the spoonfuls of sugar in their daily coffee or switching to a less sugary breakfast cereal and to realise over a year how many bags of free or added sugars they could save (based on a series of motivational and practical suggested swaps) – which when translated to a year represents a significant contributor to their health.

I very much hope you will join us this year in encouraging patients to participate in these challenges – and continuing to follow the guidance of Change4Life. The problem we face could not be more serious.

But 2016 can be the year of sugar reduction – and the year to meaningfully tackle the obesity time bomb.

 Deb Cook is the Vice-Chair of the National Obesity Forum, which leads the JanUary campaign. For more information about JanUary and how to get involved, please visit www.jan-u-ary.co.uk.

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