overweight man measuring waist

Around six million people in the UK could be putting themselves at risk of life-threatening illness through failure to recognise they are clinically obese, believing they are simply overweight.

Of those who are clinically obese, with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of more than 30, nearly half (44 per cent) say they have no concerns that they are putting themselves at risk of serious illness or premature death as a result of their weight.

New research published by Nuffield Health, also shows that obesity can have a negative impact on work and career and can lead to depression and discrimination in the workplace. More than one in ten ( 14 per cent) of those surveyed said they associated the word ‘unemployable’ with people who are obese and almost the same amount (11 per cent) said they had felt discriminated against at work from colleagues due to their weight.   However, the findings also revealed that more than a third (38 per cent) of those surveyed who had lost weight said that it had a positive effect on their work.

GP and Managing Director Wellbeing for Nuffield Health, Dr Andrew Jones, said: “Our research has shown us that obesity is a very real problem in the workplace and it impacts employee physical and mental wellbeing. We know obesity is a risk associated with both absenteeism and presenteeism, which is when an employee comes to work, but due to ill health their productivity is severely reduced. We hope that this research highlights the need for more intervention and more help and support for those who are struggling with their weight. What is encouraging is that the data demonstrates that losing weight has a positive impact on someone’s working life.”

The research notably revealed poor awareness about obesity related health risks, with more than two thirds of the UK population unaware that being obese increases the risk of developing types of cancer, liver disease and conditions like osteoarthritis.

3100 UK adults were questioned about their health and wellbeing – including perceptions of their own weight.  Half of all respondents (50 per cent) said they considered themselves to be overweight; just six per cent perceived themselves to be obese.  Following a Body Mass Index (BMI) test, the results revealed that a much larger group – 17 per cent – were measured as clinically obese (BMI 30+) while three per cent measured as seriously (morbidly) obese (BMI 40+). The figures show a clear misconception between what is considered overweight and what is obesity – a medical condition with potentially life-threatening health risks.  The research backs up comments made by England’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, last week, that obesity is now ‘the norm’.

Despite high-profile public health campaigns, the research reveals a lack of understanding among the population about obesity related health risks. While more than eight out of ten people said they were aware of the link between obesity and increased risk of heart disease (83 per cent) and Type 2 Diabetes (79 per cent), the figures show:

  • Eight out of ten people (80 per cent) say they are unaware that obesity increases the risk of some cancers, including breast cancer and bowel cancer
  • More than two thirds (68 per cent) say they are unaware that obesity increases the risk of liver disease, despite a third of UK liver disease now caused by obesity
  • Two thirds (65 per cent) are unaware that obesity increases the risk of osteoarthritis; half (48 per cent) unaware that obesity increases the risk of degenerative joints
  • Almost half (46 per cent) are unaware that obesity increases the risk of stroke

More than 500 people who measured as clinically obese (BMI 30+) were questioned further about the effects of their weight on their health and wellbeing. Nearly half (45 per cent) said they do not consider themselves to be at risk of serious illness or premature death as a result of their weight. However, more than a third (34 per cent) said they believed they were already suffering a weight related illness or injury, and almost a third (31 per cent) say they are suffering depression.

Less than half (45 per cent) have visited a GP to discuss weight related issues, while just over a third (36 per cent) said their GP had provided advice on dealing with their weight. Less than one in five (18 per cent ) of those with a BMI above 30 have received a referral to any kind of weight management programme or healthcare specialist.

In further research carried out for Nuffield Health by CACI, new mapping data shows obesity levels running at higher than 30 per cent of the population in many UK cities, including in parts of Glasgow, Birmingham, Liverpool, Teesside, and Sheffield. Experts say that local healthcare resources are set to be overwhelmed as those on the cusp of obesity begin to suffer related health conditions.

GP and Medical Director Wellbeing for Nuffield Health, Dr Davina Deniszczyc, said: “There is a very big difference between being slightly overweight and clinical obesity. Once BMI reaches 30 the body experiences physiological changes which can put massive pressure the vital organs, increasing the risk of numerous conditions, including heart attack, stroke and liver disease. We are seeing a vast number of people unwittingly straying into dangerous medical territory and perhaps not realising that the obesity awareness campaigns are directed at them.

“As healthcare professionals we need to prioritise the health of our patients over the risk of ‘hurt feelings’ caused by a frank and open conversation about their weight.  It’s vital that people have the information they need in order to make informed decisions about their health. While we need to increase access to clinically recognised weight management programmes and treatments, some people may simply benefit through structured information and goal setting, an exercise regime or through tackling the root cause of their obesity with the help of a support group or a weight management specialist; currently, these conversations are not taking place.”