Key messages from Professor Rachel Batterham’s article published in the Times RedBox on 15th July. You can read Rachel’s article here.


The Prime Minister is about announce a plan to address obesity in the UK. We must have a serious response. 

Most adults in England are living with overweight or obesity (67% of men, 60% of women), and 20% of all 11-year-old children now have obesity.[1]

COVID-19 has brought the impact of obesity on health into sharp focus with evidence that people with obesity are more likely to develop severe COVID-19 with adverse outcomes. But having obesity also significantly increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, certain types of cancers, and of dying prematurely. 

“If Boris wants to be the Prime Minister who finally gets a grip of our obesity crisis then he should listen to the overwhelming medical and scientific evidence and start by recognising obesity as a disease and not a personal choice.”

Why is COVID-19 is more severe in people with obesity? 
Obesity is known to cause inflammation throughout the body and to impair the body’s
ability to fight off infections, it also has an adverse effect on the lungs, giving rise to the
risk of more severe COVID-19. 

The causes of obesity are complex and vary from person to person but include genetic influences, biological, and social factors exacerbated by health inequalities. There is undeniable scientific evidence that some people are particularly susceptible due to the combination of their biology and the environment, not their willpower.

“It is time to move away from the dominant narrative that tells people they just need to exercise and eat healthily.”

Individual responsibility is, and always will be, important. But the narrative that people just need to exercise and eat healthily enables the state to abdicate its due responsibility for public health. It also fuels stigmatisation. After all, you wouldn’t tell someone with asthma to work harder with their breathing.The World Health Organization recognised obesity as a disease in 1997. Since then, Japan (2002), Portugal (2004), Italy (2019) and Germany (2020) have followed suit. The Royal College of Physicians joined other professional medical bodies in recognizing obesity as a disease last year.

Recognising obesity as a disease will help both the NHS and individuals to better manage their condition. The benefits of recognising obesity as a disease include:

  • Collaborative and supportive discussions about healthy weight at every healthcare interaction
  • Access to appropriate, NICE approved, treatment and intervention including psychological assessment, lifestyle measures, pharmacological intervention and bariatric surgery

My hope is that the Prime Minister will take this opportunity to demonstrate commitment to reducing obesity levels and improving the health of the nation by recognising that obesity is a disease and increasing access to evidence-based interventions. 

Any plan that doesn’t recognise obesity as a disease will fail the public.

Professor Rachel Batterham is Head of the Centre for Obesity Research, Department of Medicine, University College London and Special Advisor on Obesity to the Royal College of Physicians. Professor Batterham is one of the founding members, and Chair, of Obesity Empowerment Network UK.


References

[1] NHS Digital,’Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2020′, 5th May 2020, Available at https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england-2020#:~:text=The%20majority%20of%20adults%20were,of%20women%20who%20were%20obese.&text=Prevalence%20was%20over%20twice%20as,than%20the%20least%20deprived%20areas.