Obesity still eating away at health of the nation

The UK's trophy cabinet is crammed with the kind of awards no other country wants.

Last year we won the prize for the sickest nation in Europe, after figures showed more women die of alcoholic liver disease and cancer here than in any of our EU neighbours. The gong went alongside one for most badly- behaved teenagers, another for the worst violent crime rates and yesterday we were officially crowned the Fat Man of Europe.

The unwanted news came thanks to figures compiled by the Association of Public Health Observatories which compared the health of 27 countries across Europe. When it came to obesity, the UK fared particularly badly, emerging as the fattest nation of them all.

While the average obesity rate in the EU is 15.5 per cent, Britain now tops the league with 24.5 per cent of the adult population classified as obese. Ireland comes a close second with 23 per cent, while some countries such as Italy and Romania have managed to maintain a rate of just 10 per cent.

The news perhaps shouldn't' come as a surprise. Barely a week goes by without some new set of statistics bringing into sharp focus our continued love affair with fast food, the cost to the NHS of associated health problems and the grim fact the young generation are tipping the scales so far they may well die before their parents.

Yet in recent years millions have been spent attempting to slim the nation's growing waistline and countless projects, many of them spin-offs from Jamie Oliver's much-lauded mission to transform school dinners, have been launched to educate children in the benefits of healthy eating. In light of the APHO's pessimistic findings, it begs the question, has it all been a waste of time and money?

"Obesity is a big problem. It is one that is deeply entrenched in this country and the rates have almost doubled in the past 20 years," says Professor John Wilkinson, who co-authored the report with Dr Claire Bradford. "Whether it bears up to scrutiny or not there is a feeling in the UK that junk food is cheap and healthy food is expensive. Therefore the poorest in our society also tend to have the worst diets.

"The findings show that even in the parts of the UK where we think we are doing well there is still a long way to go.

"Compared to other Mediterranean countries, where olive oil is a key part of their diet and where there is a much higher consumption of fruit and vegetables, we don't fare too well. However, just because a problem is deep-rooted doesn't mean it's not worth tackling.

"With a project of this size and scope you can only move at the speed of the slowest country and so inevitably it may not be an accurate reflection of the picture today. Some early results looking at childhood obesity do suggest we are starting to make an impact. If you want to be optimistic, I guess it's better to be in a bad position and moving forwards than in a good position and getting worse."

However, not only is the UK struggling to keep its own house in order, the report also suggests that it may be exerting its bad influence elsewhere.

"Malta also has a significant problem with obesity, with 21 per cent of adults overweight," adds Prof Wilkinson. "While more research needs to be done in this area, I suspect it may well be down to the British influence in Malta in previous generations, when the country was more closely associated with the UK.

"Of course the statistics themselves don't tell the whole picture. One country which always surprises me is France, where the population in general eats a very rich diet. However, despite that it always tends to come out pretty well in these kind of surveys. France's relatively low levels of obesity may well be to do with better levels of exercise and the high rate of smoking. Cigarettes are known to be an appetite suppressant, although clearly this has a knock-on effect in other areas of health and certainly it's not to be recommended as a way to solve obesity."

The APHO study didn't just focus on obesity, but looked at 36 other indicators of health, from the number of road deaths and injuries to the percentage of low weight births and it wasn't all bad news for the UK.

Life expectancy overall compares favourably with other EU countries, as a nation we are pretty good at treating heart disease and there has been a noticeable improvement in terms of smoking rates. However, as well as being overweight the figures also reinforced the results of previous surveys by confirming the female death rate from cancer is among the worst in Europe and the fact the UK has more teenage mothers than in most European countries, with the North East of England coming out the worst.

Regional figures for Yorkshire and the Humber, also showed the number of doctors per head of population (144 per 100,000 people) was among the lowest in Europe and the number of acute care beds available in hospitals was also below average.

The APHO report will not be music to the Government's ears. Published on the same day the Health Select Committee said the NHS and social services will be tested "to the limit" by the coalition's four-year programme of cuts, many are already wondering whether in the push to plug the black hole in the nation's finances, the gap between the UK and the rest of Europe will continue to grow.

"The Government has made it clear that tackling health inequalities is a priority as part of its commitment to fairness and social justice," said a spokesman for the Department of Health, who also insisted there was no need for nanny state intervention to improve health and wellbeing.

"Everyone should have the same opportunity to lead a healthy life, no matter where they live or who they are. Action to tackle health inequalities is at the centre of our approach to public health. We will aim to use the least intrusive approach necessary to achieve the desired effect. We will seek to use approaches that focus on enabling and guiding people's choices wherever possible."

Prof Wilkinson and Dr Bradford are now calling for their research to be repeated every two years in the hope of tracking the progress which is being made.

"It's not just about comparing the UK with the rest of the EU, but about looking at how each region fares," says Dr Bradford. "People that are able to influence which way we go as a nation should look at this to decide on priorities and actions. Our problem with obesity might be a good place to start."

How britain grew to tip the scales in the european obesity stakes

Britain: 12st 9lb. BMI 29. Daily calorie intake: 2,200.

Typical diet: One of the main problems is the amount of pre-prepared food and ready meals we buy and eat - 900m worth a year at the last count. While millions have been spent promoting the need for five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, on average we currently only eat three. Add to that both the fact we tend to eat on the run and our binge drinking culture and it makes for a dangerous recipe.

Italy: 11st 9lb. BMI: 26. Daily calorie intake: 2,100.

Typical diet: While most Italians ignore the mantra that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, the rest of their diet more than makes up for it. Revolving around fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and pasta, the Italians tend to have a balanced diet without much snacking or processed food. Crucially they also drink less than us, with the average around two glasses of wine a day, compared to three and a half over here.

France: 10st 9lb. BMI: 24. Daily calorie intake: 2,200.

Typical diet: The French are not adverse to sugary snacks with tartines (baguettes spread with jam) and pain au chocolates regular fixtures on breakfast menus. However, lunches and dinners tend to conist of smaller portions and both meals are eaten much more leisurely than in the UK. Despite on the surface having a rich diet, it's thought this aids digestion and may be part of the reason why the French have low rates of obesity.

Germany: 11st 8lb. BMI: 26 Daily calorie intake: 2,400.

Typical diet: While the German diet does include a lot of processed red meat and the country has high rates of colon cancer as a result, their calorie intake is spread evenly across the day. Lunch tends to be the biggest meal of the day and many Germans tend not to eat after 6pm in the belief it's harder to digest food in the evening.

A healthy weight of a man of average height (5ft 9in) is 11st, with a BMI of 23.