OBESITY should be treated as a threat to Britain on the same level as terrorism, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) has insisted.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said the danger was particularly serious for women and it should be classed as a core risk to the country.
In her annual report, Dame Sally pointed out that 54% of women aged 34 to 44 were overweight or obese in 2013, and almost two-thirds of those aged 45 to 54.
The Government’s risk register of civil emergencies currently includes terrorist attacks, natural disasters such as flooding and outbreaks of disease such as flu pandemics among possible events the country needs to be ready for over the next five years.
Dame Sally, 66, said: “Obesity has to be a national priority. Action is required across all of society to prevent obesity and its associated problems from shortening women’s lives and affecting their quality of life.
“We need to address the educational and environmental factors that cause obesity and empower women and their families to live healthier lives.”
In her report, The Health Of The 51%: Women, Dame Sally said the fact that she is the first ever female CMO for England drove her to focus on women this year.
As well as obesity, the report also looks at subjects including gender-based violence against women and female genital mutilation.
It also calls for a “national audit of ovarian cancer” to boost survival rates. Ovarian cancer is the second most common gynaecological cancer and the most deadly, killing almost 4,000 women in 2013.
The report also aims to “bust the myth” that women should eat for two during pregnancy, instead focusing on a healthy diet, exercise, not smoking and avoiding alcohol.
Dame Sally added: “In women, obesity can affect the outcomes of any pregnancies they have and the health of any future children they may have. This is a difficult message to convey, as it risks burdening women with guilt and responsibility, but I believe that it can also empower women to take positive steps like eating more healthily and taking more exercise. It is never too late to take action for a healthier lifestyle - for you and your family.”
The report also aims to “break the taboo” over health problems such as post-natal incontinence or the menopause, with Dame Sally saying: “Problems ‘below the waist’ are not generally seen as attractive topics for public discussion, and women are often reluctant to seek help for common disabling conditions. This needs to end - women should never suffer in silence.”
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dame Sally reiterated her view that a ‘sugar tax’ could be needed.
“I think it is a runner. I think if you look at smoking it took 20 years for the public to believe it was needed,” she said. “I think we are at a tipping point. If industry doesn’t deliver then we are going to have to look at a sugar tax.”
Dame Sally added: “I would prefer to persuade, to nudge. I think it is inevitable that manufacturing has to reformulate and resize, that sellers - supermarkets and others - need to stop cheap promotions of unhealthy food, putting unhealthy food at the checkout.”
Dr David Richmond, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), welcomed the report, saying it was important to prevent problems in pregnancy, which was “a window of opportunity to maximise health gain for the mother but equally for her foetus and baby in later life”.
He said: “Present lifestyle factors such as maternal obesity, poor diet and nutrition, lack of physical activity, high levels of alcohol consumption, smoking and poor sexual health are the ticking time bomb that can dramatically impact upon a woman’s fertility and increase the risk of pregnancy complications, as well as the short and long-term health of both mother and baby.”
Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: “We are particularly pleased to see the CMO arguing about the critical importance of getting advice, support and care right in pregnancy if we are to avoid problems in later life for both women and their children.”