Obesity as great a danger as armed conflict

Around 2.1 billion people — about 30% of the world’s population — are now overweight or obese. The problem is getting worse, but whose responsibility is it to cut us down to size?

‘Obesity is now reaching crisis proportions.’ A stark new warning this week; this is a crisis that is costing the global economy almost as much as armed conflict or smoking, and more than alcoholism and climate change.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, the yearly worldwide cost of obesity is £1.3tn, or 2.8% of annual economic activity. In the UK, obesity has the second-largest impact on the economy after smoking, costing more than war, armed violence and terrorism; in 2012 it generated a loss of more than £47 billion, or 3% of GDP.

Around the globe 2.1bn people — about 30% of the world’s population — are overweight or obese, and the problem is getting worse. If the rise in obesity levels continues at its current rate, almost half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese by 2030.

A person is classified as obese if he or she has a very high degree of body fat. This is commonly assessed by calculating a person’s body mass index (BMI), which divides weight in kilograms by height in metres squared. A BMI above 25 is considered overweight and one between 30-40, obese.

Obesity doesn't just affect a person’s quality of life. It impacts the economy by adding to a country’s health care bill. By causing illness, obesity also results in lost working days and lost economic output.

But the report says the burden of tackling the issue should not rest with the individual alone. Rather, the environments in which we live have to change.

Governments, retailers, restaurants and food and drink manufacturers must work together to implement measures such as portion controls on packaged foods, safer cycle lane networks and more PE lessons in schools. Doing this could bring 20% of overweight people in the UK back to normal weight within 10 years, saving around £16bn a year in the UK.

Fighting fat

Shifting the responsibility for this crisis onto governments and food manufacturers could make people complacent, some say. Already, expensive weight loss surgery is being offered to more and more patients, leaving people with the impression that someone else will pick up the bill if they choose to live unhealthily. We should not rely on governments to act when we can easily take control of our own health.

But obesity is a far more complex issue, others argue, and often linked to economic and psychological factors sometimes beyond an individual’s control. Keeping healthy is expensive, and society’s perceptions about weight must be confronted along with the stigma of obesity. This crisis can only be tackled if governments and companies encourage changes in lifestyles and practices and if social norms are challenged.

You Decide

  1. Is it an individual’s duty to look after their own health, or the responsibility of governments and companies?
  2. Should a ‘fat tax’ be implemented on food and drink that is high in fat?


  1. Use the facts and figures in this story to create an eye-catching poster or infographic alerting people to this problem.
  2. Write a letter to your local MP, or draw a map or diagram, which contains imaginative ideas about how the problem of obesity could be tackled in your local area.

Some People Say...

“People who are obese only have themselves to blame.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why do people get fat?
There are many reasons, and not just a lack of exercise or self-discipline. Obesity can be linked to medical or psychological factors often beyond a person's control, such as genetics, addiction, bullying and illness. While it’s important to try to eat healthily and do more exercise, stigmatising people who are overweight is not the answer and only makes the problem worse.
Has the problem always been this bad?
No. The Brits in particular are fatter and heavier than ever before due to changes in lifestyle, portion sizes and the abundance of food. In fact, in 1809, a man named Daniel Lambert, who weighed 50 stone, charged people money to see him, which shows how rare obesity used to be. Today there are more than 100,000 Lamberts in the UK.

Word Watch

GDP, or Gross Domestic Product, is an economic statistic that reveals the size of a country’s economy in one number, by measuring the value of a country’s output of goods and services. It allows people to monitor over periods of time such as a quarter (three months) or a year whether the economy is growing or contracting.
Health care bill
The report estimated that the cost of treating obesity on the NHS is equivalent to the entire budget for police, fire services, law courts and prisons.
Draft guidance published this year by the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence recommended that those with a BMI of 30 should be considered for weight loss surgery, rather than restricting it to those with a BMI of over 40.
A recent study showed that eating healthily now costs three times as much as it would have done 10 years ago.
Fewer than one in 10 people who are obese describe themselves as such, because being overweight has become so common that perceptions have shifted. Many people also refuse to recognise themselves as obese because of the stigma associated with the term.

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