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Published on February 23rd, 2015 | by Caroline Meyer

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Too few, Too little, Too late: Why we are failing to reduce obesity in the UK

On average, people in the UK are getting more and more overweight. This will continue to be the case unless we educate people better, provide better care within the NHS, develop brand new ways of helping overweight people in the community and change the rules and regulations about how foods are manufactured, advertised and sold within our society.

Latest government figures suggest that almost two thirds of UK adults are either overweight or obese costing the tax payer £5 billion a year in NHS costs alone. This situation is not just a UK problem but a global one. More than 2.1 billion people (30% of the world’s population) are either overweight or obese and these rates are increasing.

Currently, what tends to happen is that people only get targeted help for their obesity if they already have serious health problems (e.g. diabetes, heart problems or serious mental health issues). Indeed, we have well-established services, delivering state-of-the-art interventions, including bariatric surgery and tailored dietetic / lifestyle advice. There also exist many specialist obesity services. However, the current system is not joined-up and is insufficient; offering too little input to too few individuals, too late in their life.

Eating is a really complicated human behaviour. There are multiple reasons underpinning what, when and how much a person eats. These include the obvious things (such as the taste of the food, age and nutritional education). However, there are much less obvious things (such as the way people think and their mood; their social and environmental situations). For example, people’s ability to recognise and act upon how hungry they are is often overridden by the fact that they see something in their environment that they want to eat. In addition, using food to reward children for good behaviour or not allowing children to eat “unhealthy” foods serves to make those foods more desirable and leads children to want to eat those foods.

Even some hospital specialists, who are working with patients to reduce their weight, don’t focus on the full range of factors that we know affect eating behaviour. We also need better, evidence-based interventions that can be widely used by anyone overweight in the community to manage their weight before they get to the point where they develop serious physical and psychological problems.

Importantly, there is currently a lack of knowledge in the population about those factors that affect eating behaviour. Most NHS workers encounter overweight and obese patients on a day to day basis. However, they are insufficiently trained in both understanding why people eat as they do and in ways to help people to change their behaviours.
Finally, it is essential that those scientists who really understand eating behaviour work with policy makers to help them develop better policies and practices.

We now have a great opportunity. The digital revolution such as the widespread use of smart phones and wearable technology gives us the chance to radically change how we prevent and deal with obesity. This is a core area of activity for scientists working at the Institute of Digital Healthcare at The University of Warwick. We believe that digital technology offers a real way forward in reducing levels of obesity across the globe.

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Caroline Meyer is Professor of Digital Healthcare at the Institute of Digital Healthcare (IDH) at WMG. The IDH aims to improve people's health and wellbeing through the development, evaluation and use of innovative digital technologies and services.

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