Poverty and Obesity

Overweight: Poverty & Obesity

In the last instalment of Overweight, we established that the UK is the 43rd most obese country in the world but also the most obese OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country in western Europe, with well over 25% of the population having a BMI of 30 or above. When looking at England specifically, we also established that London (particularly Camden and Kensington) and Cambridge are the ‘least fat’ places in the UK, followed by the home counties and Kent. The north east of England has the highest obesity levels with over 75% of the population in Rotherham carrying excess weight. Yorkshire, Humber and the East Midlands are also ‘fatter’ than average. But what is it that causes one area of the country to be more ‘obese’ than another? There is undoubtedly a correlation between poverty and obesity, but which is causal? And are there any other demographic factors that link to obesity?

Social deprivation and obesity hugely overlap. It is no accident that the most deprived cities in the UK include Rotherham, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Rochdale, Bradford, Barnsley, Leeds and Birmingham, all of which can be found in the ‘fattest’ counties. There is also a particularly strong relationship between deprivation and childhood obesity, with ‘obesity prevalence in the most deprived 10% of children approximately twice that of the least deprived’ (Public Health England). Poverty, in the form of low income, poor education, limited prospects, negative inclusion (where communities unite around shared negative choices and shun those, even their own children, who aspire to make more positive life choices than them, ultimately because they find positive change threatening), disruptive, neglectful and even abusive home life, where the focus is on surviving rather than thriving, and stress, are all factors which massively increase the likelihood of obesity.

Obesity is also causal in that it can, in turn, further harm someone’s prospects in life, their self-esteem and underlying mental health, their physical well-being, their motivation and life choices and even, over time, their genetics. Poverty causes obesity and obesity causes further poverty; they feed off each other creating an existence that is increasingly small, dark and angry. It is very hard for communities to climb out of this kind of existence once the damage is done.

Sir Michael Marmot has written a review on how income, social deprivation and ethnicity all have an important impact on the likelihood of becoming obese. Indeed Public Health England reported that, Black adults are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to be obese, and are twice as likely as Chinese adults to be so. A House of Commons briefing paper, written by Carl Bakers in March 2018, tells us that obesity levels increase after the age of 45 and are also slightly higher in women, although obesity and overweight combined is more prevalent in men.

The next instalment of the Overweight series will focus on childhood obesity and measures that we can take to prevent it.

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