Exploring Obesity

Posted 05 October 2015

Matt James, Senior Fellow and Julia Manning, Chief Executive 2020health


Another day and another report on obesity. Or so it would seem.  National bodies, NGO’s, charities, consultancies and the World Health Organization have all been producing reports for the past couple of decades showing the alarming growth in obesity and saying something must be done.

So why are we undertaking more research? Surely the case has been made? Year on year growth in the waist circumference of Brits is well documented and solutions have been proposed. High on the media menu of remedies has been eating less – it used to be less fat, it’s now about less sugar. But based on experience to date, there is no silver bullet and a focus on one new ingredient – let alone simply telling us to eat less – is not going to be the answer.

So what is lacking? The 2015 103 page Health and Social Care Information Centre report on obesity is typical; it comments on regions, gender, rural v urban, age, quintiles, perceptions, activity, diet etc. But there is no analysis of detailed trends, e.g. which women, in what circumstances, with which differences – above all – who exactly gets fat? If we are to make well-informed policy that reverses the obesity trend, we have to know who we are targeting.

There is now common agreement that obesity is caused by a number of different and complex factors that inform people’s health, diets, and personal health behavior.  The difficulty lies in trying to tease out what is cause and what is association. Unless work is done to improve our understanding of this complex relationship, we will continue to produce well-intentioned strategies that sound sensible but ultimately are uninformed by the detail of people’s lived experiences.

With this challenge in mind and building on our 2014 report ‘Careless Eating Costs Lives report, 2020health is carrying out research which examines and compiles the wealth of current knowledge and statistics on obesity in England in order to address one crucial question: ‘Who exactly becomes obese?’ By looking at changing trends, the structural and choice architecture of people’s lives this research aims to inform the gaps in knowledge of obesity research that must be filled in order to begin to intelligently and meaningfully address the ways in which individuals, organisations and policy makers in both the public and private sectors can address UK obesity.

Our research has involved an intensive and comprehensive literature review, locating as many peer reviewed academic publications (published in 2010 or sooner) as possible, linking obesity to a socio demographic category. These include factors such as age, gender, divorce rates, green space, employment/unemployment, ethnicity and crime rates. A total of 16 categories were used in the study. We then compared and analysed the findings of these papers against each other to begin to form a holistic understanding of what is embedded in English obesity.

The final report will be published later this year and will explore and discuss the factors outlined above, and others, in more detail, with the aim of directly informing decisions on how we reverse UK obesity trends.  We believe that by taking a step back and looking at obesity in this wider context will help to raise new avenues for thinking through novel correlations between obesity, environment and society.  In this way, we can truly begin to think through why many of England’s residents are becoming obese and develop creative and innovative solutions that together can form part of a much needed national strategy.

Read Matt James and Julia Manning’s blog tomorrow for a preview of some of the initial findings.