Comment: If we don’t act now, obesity will overcome the NHS

By Rob Flello MP

Obesity will become a £50 billion a year problem within 30 years – and in the meantime, it could bankrupt the NHS.

Just look at the growing problem – a quarter of adults (26% of both men and women aged 16 or over) are obese; 'morbid' obesity is the UK's fastest growing weight category; and we have one million more diabetics (together with all their health issues, and dramatic treatment costs) than we did just seven years ago.

Other countries are taking the long-term view, so why not us? Diabetes UK is to spend £2.4 million to establish if Type 2 diabetes can be reversed by weight loss (it looks like it can, in many cases); the EU has a nine billion euro programme across eight countries, to see if and/or how pre-diabetes can be halted in its tracks by curbing weight gain.
Tackling sleep apnoea, the 'silent killer', is going to be a big part of this. Almost certainly around 700,000 people in the UK suffer from sleep apnoea. It is heavily influenced by obesity, disrupts sleep and causes acute tiredness. More than 250 deaths are caused each year by tired drivers – around five every week – but this could be just the tip of the iceberg.

And it can be equally lethal for sufferers. When he was 30 stone, Steve Hancock stopped breathing up to 82 times an hour each night. Steve is a former refuse collector, who got his HGV licence, and moved from walking behind the truck, to driving other trucks. With a more sedentary lifestyle, his weight ballooned.

Soon he relied on a cumbersome oxygen mask, loaned by a hospital, and attached to a cylinder by his bed.

Steve lost an incredible 14 stone, nearly half his bodyweight, not through his GP, but privately. He used a medically supervised total meal replacement diet, with formula foods – ie soups and shakes – and then was helped back on to a conventional diet and weight maintenance.

This programme has been proven in GP surgeries to provide safe, fast weight loss with long term success.

But does the NHS back clinically proven diets? Thankfully some more enterprising parts – eg obesity clinics and some GPs – do, but there is a long way to go.

Yet time is something we don't have.

Ironically, GPs aren't incentivised to help their patients – they're only incentivised, through the Quality and Outcomes Framework, to record the number of overweight patients.

The solution has to be a team effort involving GPs, practice nurses, NHS facilities, pharmacists, health visitor sports centres, libraries, and community groups.

Also vital is the elephant in the room – the food industry. It needs to pursue strategies for sugar substitution and fat reduction, as well as participate in a public education campaign. It has an overwhelming responsibility to help.

Is this Mission Impossible for the UK government?

On the contrary – we quite literally can't afford for this one to fail.

Rob Flello is the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on adult and childhood obesity

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