Projections from a new report by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) suggest that if current trends continue, there will be more than 21 million obese adults in the UK by 2040, a 6 million increase from 2020 figures that the charity described as "staggering".
It would take the proportion of the UK population who are obese to well over a third (36%), higher than the healthy weight population, which is predicted to be just 30% by 2040, and could mean that obesity overtakes smoking as the largest cause of cancer.
Obesity (defined as a BMI of 30 or above) could be the most common BMI category by 2040 and this 'tipping point' could happen as early as the late 2020s, the report said. Furthermore, a majority of the population would be above a healthy weight, with the proportion of UK adults who would fall into the 'overweight or obese' category (BMI 25 or over) predicted to increase from the current 64% to reach 71%, or 42 million people, by 2040. In addition, severe obesity (BMI of 40 or over) in adults would almost double, from 3% in 2019 to 6% in 2040.
The report comes in the wake of comments earlier this week by former Conservative leader, William Hague, who said it was "morally reprehensible" that the Government had caved in to pressure from MPs and weakened its anti-obesity strategy. This included delaying a ban on buy-one-get-one-free deals on foods high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS), stated to be in response to the cost-of-living crisis. The Government also postponed for a year the implementation of a ban on TV junk food adverts before the proposed 9pm watershed.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of CRUK, said: "These projections should serve as a wake-up call to the Government about the state of our nation's health. "Ministers mustn't keep kicking the can down the road when it comes to tackling the obesity crisis – delaying measures that will lead to healthier food options. I urge them to revisit this decision and take bold action on obesity, the second biggest preventable risk factor for cancer in the UK."
The charity said that the Government's pledge to restrict junk food marketing and volume-based price promotions was "a key pillar to its obesity strategy and commitment to tackling health disparities".
Warning on Cancer Rates
Dr Julie Sharp, CRUK's head of health and patient information, said: "Obesity is a complex issue and the world around us can make it very difficult to keep a healthy weight. Government action is key in making sure that the healthy option is readily available and affordable for people, and [in] addressing the wider barriers that prevent people from living healthy lives. If these staggering trends continue, obesity will eclipse smoking as the biggest cause of cancer."
Overweight and obesity increase the risk of at least 13 different types of cancer, the charity warned, and is responsible for around 22,800 cases of cancer each year in the UK. Overall it has estimated that more than 1 in 20 cases of cancer is caused by excess weight, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer has estimated that obesity, physical inactivity, and sedentary behaviour are responsible for between 20% and 40% of the entire burden of these cancer types.
Research suggests that each 5 kg/m2 increase in BMI is linked with a 10% increase in cancer mortality, and a study part-funded by CRUK published last month revealed that every 5 extra BMI units almost doubled the risk of endometrial cancer, one of the types most closely linked with obesity.
While more research is needed to understand the links between obesity and cancer, CRUK said it was "extremely concerned" that as obesity rates rise, cancer rates will also increase. "These projections are a stark warning to Government of the cost of inaction," it added.
Worse Obesity Rates Among the Least Well-off
The report also highlighted a far higher prevalence of obesity among those in the most deprived areas of England compared with the least deprived places. In 2019, 35% of people living in the most deprived areas were obese, compared with 22% of those living in the least deprived areas. These proportions were predicted to increase to 46% versus 25%, respectively, by 2040, suggesting that the relative deprivation gap for obesity would increase.
Ms Mitchell said: "The report also shows a stark and growing difference between obesity rates in those that are least well off and most well off. The upcoming Health Disparities White Paper offers the Government a real opportunity to level up the nation, and make sure fewer people hear the devastating words 'you have cancer'."
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