Around six million people in the UK could be putting themselves at risk of life-threatening illness or early death through failure to recognise they are clinically obese, believing they are simply overweight.
Of those who are obese, almost half say they have no concerns about serious illness due to their weight.
New research by Nuffield Health also shows poor understanding about obesity related Health risks, with more than two thirds of the UK population saying they are unaware that obesity increases the risk of developing some types of cancer, liver disease and conditions like osteoarthritis. The findings also reveal that overall, men are less aware of the health risks of obesity and less likely to realise they are obese.
3100 UK adults were questioned about their health and wellbeing - including perceptions of their own weight. Half of all respondents said they considered themselves to be overweight; just six per cent perceived themselves to be obese. Following a Body Mass Index (BMI*) test, the results revealed that a much larger group - 17 per cent - were measured as clinically obese (BMI 30+) while three per cent measured as seriously (morbidly) obese (BMI 40+). The figures show a clear misconception between what is considered overweight and what is obesity – a medical condition with life-threatening health risks. The research backs up comments made by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, in her annual report, that being overweight is now seen as ‘the norm’ in the UK.
GP and Medical Director, Wellbeing, for Nuffield Health, Dr Davina Deniszczyc, said: “There is a very big difference between being slightly overweight and clinical obesity. Once BMI reaches 30 the body experiences physiological changes which can put massive pressure on the vital organs, increasing the risk of numerous conditions, including heart attack, stroke and liver disease. We are seeing a vast number of people unwittingly straying into dangerous medical territory and perhaps not realising that the obesity awareness campaigns are directed at them.
“As healthcare professionals we need to prioritise the health of our patients over the risk of ‘hurt feelings' caused by a frank and open conversation about their weight. It’s vital that people have the information they need in order to make informed decisions about their health. While we need to increase access to clinically recognised weight management programmes and treatments, some people may simply benefit from structured information and goal setting, an exercise regime or through tackling the root cause of their obesity with the help of a support group or a weight management specialist; currently, these conversations are not taking place.”
Despite high-profile public health campaigns, the research reveals a lack of understanding among the population about obesity related health risks. While more than eight out of ten people said they were aware of the link between obesity and increased risk of heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, the figures show that 80% of people say they are unaware that obesity increases the risk of some cancers, including breast and bowel cancer.
More than 500 people who measured as clinically obese (BMI 30+) were questioned further about the effects of their weight on their health and wellbeing. Nearly half say they do not consider themselves to be at risk of serious illness or premature death as a result of their weight. However, more than a third say they are suffering a weight related illness or injury, and almost a third say they are suffering depression.
Mr Ahmed Hamouda, Consultant Obesity Surgeon at Nuffield Health, said: “What we are seeing is an ever increasing group of people who sit in ‘No Man’s Land’, between BMI 30 and 45, for whom provision of effective weight loss programmes and treatments are either routinely rationed or ad-hoc at best. With regional provision of funded weight loss services so varied, this group will overwhelm local healthcare resources with all kinds of obesity related health conditions. That we allow people to become severely obese, ill or both before they can access clinically recognised treatments and programmes is not only unacceptable from a public health perspective, but also counter-productive in terms of long-term health costs.”