A study published today by researchers from Sheffield University suggests people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or more fall into six categories: heavy drinking males; young healthy females; the affluent and healthy elderly; the physically sick but happy elderly; the unhappy and anxious middle-aged; and those with the poorest health.
Researchers said their findings suggest that clinicians and policy makers should not target obese individuals as a whole, but treat them according to which “type” they belong to as “one size does not fit all” in tackling the the country’s obesity crisis which costs £6 billion a year.
The study using the Yorkshire Health Study analysed 4,100 people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above - anyone who is 30 or more is classed as obese.
Mark Green from the university’s School of Health and Related Research, who led the research, said: “Policies designed to tackle obesity and encourage healthier lifestyles often target individuals just because they are obese.
“But a focus on just the group as a whole is not very efficient. We are all different and different health promotion approaches work for different people.
“Our research showed that those in the groups that we identified are likely to need very different services, and will respond very differently to different health promotion policies.
“In the future, we hope that GPs will keep in mind these six groups when offering advice to their patients.”
The study found the largest cluster was “younger healthy females”, which was also the youngest group. They displayed the most positive health characteristics and engaged in some healthy behaviours.
“Heavy drinking males” showed similar characteristics except with respect to high drinking. This group were also less likely to be managing their weight, although they did report above average levels of physical exercise and walking.
The “unhappy anxious middle-aged” group was primarily female, had poor mental health and reported high levels of insomnia, anxiety, depression and fatigue. Their sense of well-being was relatively low, but they did engage in healthy physical activity and weight management, and had the lowest alcohol consumption.
The “affluent healthy elderly” were in good health, apart from a large proportion with high blood pressure, and above average alcohol consumption.
The “physically sick but happy elderly” group had a higher prevalence of chronic illnesses including arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure but exhibited low levels of anxiety and depression.
The final group with the poorest health was the most deprived, had the highest prevalence of most chronic health conditions, and tended not to have healthy behaviours. It also had the highest average BMI.
Researchers suggested messages about alcohol reduction could help tackle obesity in young adults, while for middle aged individuals who are unhappy and anxious an intervention involving increasing exercise mixed with psycho-social counselling could be beneficial. Young healthy females may not need any intervention, researchers said.
For those in the poorest health group the study showed advice surrounding exercise may not be reasonable and much more modest goals may be needed and for the affluent healthy elderly weight loss could be a priority.
The findings are published in the Journal of Public Health.