Dr Richard Vautrey: NHS pays the price for obesity epidemic

OBESITY levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years, with poor diet causing more ill-health and earlier deaths than smoking.

Amidst this growing problem, the Government has cut a further £200m from the public health budget, which will only put back efforts to protect and improve the nation’s health and wellbeing.

Particularly worrying is that poor diet has become such a feature of our children’s lives. Across Sheffield, Doncaster, Rotherham, and Leeds, a third of children are obese or 
overweight by the time they leave primary school.

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As a GP in Leeds, I’m seeing 
increasing numbers of children in my surgery who are overweight. This is not only having an impact on their health now, but it’s making it much more 
likely they’ll have long-term conditions such as diabetes and heart disease in the future.

However, if we are to reduce their risk of dying a lot earlier than the healthier children in their class, then we can’t leave it to the NHS to solve the problem alone – society as a whole needs to change.

As a nation, we consume too many foods high in fat, sugar and salt, with diet-related illness costing the National Health Service £6bn, and causing 70,000 deaths, every year. We must break the cycle, and create an environment where it is normal, easy and enjoyable for children and young people to eat healthily.

Addressing the commercial 
influences that have such a strong impact on diet – such as the advertising of unhealthy food and drink – will be key, but beyond regulation, schools need to be supported in creating a healthy food environment.

Thankfully, it isn’t just doctors who share these concerns.

A new survey from the BMA has revealed that almost three quarters of parents in Yorkshire and the Humber back calls to ensure food served at academies and free schools meets the same healthy standard as other state schools.

Despite the Government 
already putting in place strict food regulations for local authority schools in England, there are still over 3,500 academies and 200 free schools who do not have to meet the same standards as state schools.

If we introduce a whole-school approach to promote healthy diets, with food standards being an important part of this, it will transform a future generation and help to reduce the long term problems of obesity.

As well as consuming too many foods high in fats, sugar and salt, many people, particularly those in low income households, are not eating enough fruit and vegetables.

Eight out of 10 parents in this 
region also support calls from the BMA to provide a free piece of fruit or vegetable every day to all primary school children across the UK.

This would not only expose them to types of healthy foods, which they may not have already tried, but it can also help to improve their academic performance.

Already obesity is taking a toll on 
the health and well-being of our 
country, and causing a significant
 indent on the NHS budget, but fast-forward only 35 years, and you will see how quickly things can worsen.

By 2050, obesity is predicted to affect six out of 10 adult men, half of adult women and a quarter of all children in the UK.

The resulting NHS costs could reach just under £10bn, with wider costs to society estimated to reach almost £50 billion per year.

The Government must heed these warnings, act now, and do everything in its power to decrease the level of obesity and reduce the substantial burden of diet-related ill-health in the UK.

Dr Richard Vautrey is a Leeds GP and deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee: