New analysis reveals stark inequalities in obesity rates across England

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Urgent action is needed to tackle stark inequalities in rates of obesity and obesity-related illness and prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed, according to a new briefing published yesterday by The King’s Fund.

New analysis by the charity highlights a significant increase in obesity in the most deprived communities in England in recent years, leading to a widening gap between the richest and poorest parts of the country. People in the most deprived areas are also more than twice as likely to be admitted to hospital for obesity-related health problems.

The key findings, which are drawn from a range of sources including data published by NHS Digital, Public Health England and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), include the following.

  • The majority of adults in England are now overweight or obese. In 2019, 64 per cent of adults in England were overweight, with 28 per cent being obese and 3 per cent morbidly obese.
  • The gap in obesity rates between women from the most and least deprived areas is 17 percentage points, up from 11 percentage points in 2014, while for men the deprivation gap is 8 points, an increase from just 2 points in 2014.  
  • Childhood obesity rates follow a similar pattern: for children in year 6, the gap increased from 8.5 to 13.3 percentage points between 2006/7 and 2019/20. 
  • The gap in overweight and obesity rates between children from the least and most affluent families in the UK is larger than any EU country (26 points compared to the EU average of 8 percentage points).
  • Last year there were more than 1 million hospital admissions linked to obesity in England, an increase of 17 per cent compared to 2018/19. Rates of obesity related hospital admissions in the most deprived parts of the country are 2.4 times higher than in the least deprived areas. 
  • Rising rates of obesity translate to increasing costs for the NHS. In 2014/15 the NHS spent £6.1 billion on treating obesity-related ill health. This is forecast to rise to £9.7 billion per year by 2050.

Areas the with highest rates of obesity tend to be clustered around urban areas in the north of England. These differences in obesity rates translate to worse health outcomes for people living in those areas and contribute to deepening health inequalities across the country.

The briefing concludes that recent governments have taken a fragmented approach to tackling obesity and while some individual policies have been successful, they have fallen short of the cross-cutting approach needed. Much more needs to be done to improve the availability of affordable, healthy food for people in deprived areas and support them to eat well and take regular exercise.

It also argues that the NHS must do more to tackle obesity and support people to make healthier choices. This includes using local insights to target services at communities with the greatest need, training the workforce to offer advice about diet and nutrition, and incentivising referrals to specialist diet programmes and more intensive clinical interventions like weight-loss surgery.

Richard Murray, Chief Executive of The King’s Fund, said: ‘Our analysis lays bare a deep and widening gap in the rates of obesity between the richest and poorest parts of the country, with women in our most deprived communities faring particularly poorly. Given the serious health risks that come with obesity and the significant cost to the NHS, this is exacerbating shocking inequalities in health and will only add extra pressure on the NHS.

‘People in deprived areas can face significant barriers to accessing affordable, healthy food and taking regular exercise and there is much more the NHS can do to support people to make healthier choices and target services where they are needed most. If levelling up is to mean anything, the new Secretary of State must put tackling the obesity crisis and reducing health inequalities at the top of his agenda.’

Notes to editors

Tackling obesity: the role of the NHS in a whole-system approach was published yesterday (Sunday 4 July) by The King’s Fund.

For further information please contact Gemma Umali, Press and Public Affairs Manager on 07584 146035 or g.umali@kingsfund.org.uk

The King’s Fund is an independent charity working to improve health and care in England. It helps to shape policy and practice through research and analysis; develop individuals, teams and organisations; promote understanding of the health and social care system; and bring people together to learn, share knowledge and debate. Its vision is that the best possible health and care is available to all.