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Britain's Fat Fight

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall looks at the impact and causes of obesity in modern Britain.

About the programme

Britain is already the most obese country in Western Europe and, if current trends continue, more than 50% of us will be overweight by 2050. There’s no doubt that our poor diet and lack of exercise is slowly killing us... as well as crippling the NHS. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall challenges some of the biggest food companies and restaurant chains to be more honest about what they are selling and asks the Government what they’re doing to tackle this crisis. He also discovers if it is possible to change the eating habits of a whole city by challenging the people of Newcastle to lose 100,000lbs in a year.

Read more about the series on the BBC’s Programme pages

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

Britain's Fat Fight - Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall holding Vegetables

Copyright: Andrew Hayes-Watkins - KEO FILMS

More on obesity

Our OU experts take a closer look at obesity and what we need to do to tackle it. 

Is obesity inevitable?

Obesity cuts life expectancy by an average of up to 10 years, and costs the UK £5.1bn a year to treat; more than it takes to run the police, fire service and court system combined. 

Obesity has been rising in adults for more than thirty years and more recently an upward trend has been identified in children. In 2015, 58% of women and 68% of men were overweight or obese with the prevalence of obesity increasing from 15% in 1993 to 27% in 2015. The trend has also been identified in school children through the National Child Measurement Programme:  in 2015/16, over 1 in 5 children in Reception, and over 1 in 3 children in Year 6 were measured as obese or overweight, meaning that there is nearly a doubling of the rate of overweight and obesity in children as they move through primary school.

Children and obesity

A diagram that illustrates the different reasons, and ways, people incorrectly perceive their weight or that of their children.

Copyright: Public Health England

There is clearly a direct link between adult and childhood obesity; a child without an obese parent has a 10% chance of becoming obese, whereas a child with one parent who is obese has a 40% chance of becoming obese and a child with two obese parents has an 80% chance of becoming obese. Is this due to genes or their environment? A new branch of science called epigenetics have found a link between obese pregnant women and the likelihood of their baby growing up to be obese; the environment of the womb predisposes the growing babies genes to be more susceptible to obesity. So genes can play a part in childhood obesity.

We know that in adults environmental issues influence the rate of obesity, this is also true for children, and an issue that has been identified recently is that in areas of high deprivation children have higher rates of obesity. It was found by National Child Measurement Programme that 24.7% of children in year 6 from the most deprived areas of England were obese compared to 13.1% of children in the least deprived areas.

So if these reports are finding that one third of children are obese and one quarter of adults are obese, and that both genes and the environment we live in play a part in obesity you might ask what is going on and is it inevitable that this trend will continue.

One explanation for the lack of progress in tackling obesity is that we are becoming immune to it. With the gradual rise in obesity, it has become more accepted. Only 6% of Britons in 2014 consider themselves to be obese, whereas a quarter are obese, and parents of obese children fail to recognise that their child is obese. Public Health England make the following suggestions: See right


Tackling obesity

Hands reaching for coke and water

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev from Pexels

Until recently, obesity has been a medical concern, with most interventions focusing on treatment or individual behaviour modification. However there is gradual recognition that obesity is not a problem of individuals but a problem of society. Therefore measures have been put into place to tackle obesity and overweight at population levels. 

Some strategies for controlling childhood obesity include:

  • Regulation of food marketing; ‘fat tax’ on high-fat, high-sugar food and beverages, particularly those aimed at children and young people.
  • Schools as health-supporting environments.
  • Restaurants, food and beverage companies to improve offerings for children, reduce portion sizes and make healthy choices more attractive.

The media needs to reinforce healthy lifestyle choices through advertising, television, film and the internet.  


The fight against obesity

How are we battling the unrelenting rise in obesity? And how could the government help?

Stepping up to a rise in obesity

Holding an apple on a yellow background

Photo by Any Lane from Pexels


Much of the media coverage on obesity tells us of the detrimental impact of the somewhat unrelenting rise in obesity, such as the two following recent updates:

  1. From Diabetes UK: Over the next 20 years, the number of obese adults in the country is forecast to soar to 26 million people. According to health experts, such a rise would result in more than a million extra cases of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer
  2. A recent study, published in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, showed that life expectancy for obese men and women was 4.2 and 3.5 years shorter respectively than people in the entire healthy BMI weight range.

However, not all information is negative and one drive to reduce obesity has had considerable success. The Newcastle Can Campaign  led by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is an example of a new approach to tackling obesity. The approach is inspired from research indicating that obesity is not simply an individual problem, but a problem of society. Therefore, community focussed approaches are likely to be successful. The Newcastle Can campaign brought people together from all parts of the city and resources provided online meant that there was regular support regarding healthy eating and recipes as well as exercise tips to support and encourage those involved to maintain healthy lifestyle habits. In Newcastle the combined efforts of the community meant weight loss of 112,978lbs over a year. Other areas across the country have replicated the Newcastle Can Campaign; Norfolk, Southampton, Manchester, Torbay and Cornwall.


What is the government doing about obesity?

Child grabbing colourful sweets jelly beans

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

The lifestyle changes being made through these community-based campaigns can be challenging to maintain, and there is a growing need to have anti-obesity policies put in place to support communities to eat healthily. One might ask what the government has done to curb obesity? In recognition of the increasing numbers of children who were overweight or obese a Childhood Obesity Plan was released in 2016, but was heavily criticized for having no teeth, as it included voluntary targets for the food industry to cut sugar in children's food and drink.  An interesting contrast is the Irish example where a policy and action plan (A Health Weight for Ireland 2016 ) has been developed. It includes legislation as well as targets and one in particular is to work with the food industry to develop a code of practice for food and drinks promotion, marketing, sponsorship and product placement.


Junk food marketing

1 min 45

The Irish action plan is ambitious as food marketers have sophisticated ways of targeting children to promote unhealthy food. Take a look at our short videos on the top 5 things junk food marketers know about your child and your child's phone as a junk food marketer.


1 min 8

These two clips provide worrying insight into how children and young people are targeted, demonstrating that there is a need to curb such access to young minds, especially when parents are often unaware of such approaches being made.

On the other hand, one promising development this year has been the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) that has been convened to look at obesity. The group is calling for the government to take a new approach in tackling obesity through prevention and treatment and have published a report that calls for a 9pm watershed on food advertising on products high in fat and sugar (APPG on Obesity Report 2018 ). So a combination of communities coming together with support, along with all political parties coming together to tackle obesity may provide a glimmer of hope in the fight against obesity.


Meet the OU expert

A photograph of Doctor Joan Simons
Joan SimonsAssociate Dean, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language StudiesVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Doctor Joan Simons
Joan SimonsAssociate Dean, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies

Dr Joan Simons is Associate Dean Teaching Excellence in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies and one of the Directors of the Centre for Children's Wellbeing (CCW), based at The Open University.

Her background is in Child Health, adult education, management, leadership and coaching as well as adult and children's nursing, burns nursing, community health and pain management research.  Joan has held a number of posts in nurse education and worked as a research fellow at the Institute of Child Health.

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