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Obesity levels have trebled in the last 30 years – and generalised diet recommendations are doing little to change this, economist explains

Brandon Fraser’s portrayal of an obese man in The Whale has sparked an online debate about whether the film is ‘fatphobic’ or an important narrative that addresses the issue of eating disorders. Regardless of whether the film tackles the topic of obesity in the right way, it has shone a spotlight on it. Eating disorders effect 1.25 million people in the UK, and as we approach Eating Disorders Awareness Week this month, Dr Adelina Gschwandtner, Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent, explains why we need a new approach to addressing our obesity problem. She says:

‘Obesity with its attendant impact on health, has become a central problem in many Western economies. Obesity levels in the UK have more than trebled in the last 30 years and the UK has reached the highest level of obesity in Western Europe, ahead of countries such as Ireland, Spain, Portugal, and Germany, being labelled ‘The fat man of Europe’. This is not only a matter of life and death but also a problem that has a huge economic impact, as the cost of diet-related ill health for the healthcare system in the UK has been estimated to be £5.8 billion, whilst it is also estimated that if the population met national nutritional guidelines, the health benefits that would accrue would equal to a value of £19.9 billion per year in quality adjusted life years.

‘Aside from the economic and physical-health problems associated with obesity, many fail to realise that obesity and poor lifestyles can be both a result of, and produce, poor mental health – resulting in individuals living not only a less healthy but also a less happy life.

‘Public health campaigns and healthy eating advice are aimed at tackling these problems, but, with increasing obesity levels risings, they’re proving ineffective.

‘In the UK everyone is encouraged to eat their ‘5 a day’ and do at least 150 minutes exercise per week no matter of their gender, income, or other characteristics such body weight – and unsurprisingly, these recommendations have had only a small impact.

‘In fact, results from a recent study I have conducted, with colleagues from the University of Kent and Reading, which examines the link between personality traits and exercise, show that blanket recommendations to do more exercise may once again bring little results. From analysing the impact of the personality trait of neuroticism on sports activity, the recommendation to more exercise might be especially hard to for neurotic people to adhere to. The results of the study suggest that neuroticism leads individuals to perform less sports activities despite exercise being one of the main ways to improve it.

‘With results like this considered, removing the blanket ‘more exercise, better diet’ approach to tackling obesity, and replacing it with tailored lifestyle adjustments, informed by the personal characteristics of individuals such as gender, personality type and body weight could significantly improve results and potentially reduce the surging obesity levels in the UK and worldwide. With levels continuing to rise, it is clear that generalised diet recommendations are doing little to change our obesity problem.

Dr Adelina Gschwandtner in a Senior Lecturer in Economics at the University of Kent. Her main research interests are in applied economics and most recently, Dr Gschwandtner has been analysing the consumer choice of organic food products and the relationship between nutrition and other lifestyle dimensions on happiness in the UK.