If you really care about the NHS, lose some weight

Participants in BBC Two's recent series, Who Are You Calling Fat? insisted that body positivity is more important than losing weight to fit society’s “preconceptions”
Participants in BBC Two's recent series, Who Are You Calling Fat? insisted that body positivity is more important than losing weight to fit society’s “preconceptions” Credit: Richard Ansett/Love Productions

The end of the NHS is nigh. Not because of record waiting lists. Not the 43,000 nurse vacancies. Not the increase in antibiotic resistance or the terrible indignities of corridor care, as patients languish for hours on trolleys.

The threat to our most beloved institution can’t even be removed by Labour’s promised £26 billion cash injection, nor the Tories’ £20.5bn. The crash will merely be deferred.

Why? Because here in Britain, we are gorging ourselves into an early grave. The number of obese adults has doubled in two decades, according to a new report by Diabetes UK.

In 1997, 18 per cent of people were classified as obese. By 2017, it was 29 per cent. That translates as 13 million of us severely overweight, with 4.7 million of us suffering from type 2 diabetes.

Some – such as the bullish participants in BBC Two’s Who Are You Calling Fat? series – insist overeating is a highly personal decision that only hurts the individual.

Activists maintain that fat means fit and promoting body positivity, no matter the size, is more important than losing weight to fit society’s “preconceptions”.

But these are spurious, self-serving arguments that don’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny because, long before the obese and overweight die, they will require medical treatment.

Obesity is a known cause of 13 types of cancer, heart attack and stroke and is linked to dementia. The cost of diabetes to the NHS is over £1.5m an hour, or a tenth of the NHS budget for England and Wales.

Obesity is a known cause of 13 types of cancer, heart attack and stroke and has been linked to dementia Credit: Dominic Lipinski/ PA

This equates to more than £25,000 being spent on diabetes every minute. Support group Diabetes.co.uk estimates £14 billion pounds is spent a year on treating diabetes and its wider complications.

As 34 per cent of 10- and 11-year-olds are already obese, the cost will spiral further until the NHS buckles under the strain.

Then there’s the quiet torment suffered by those unhappy about the losses that accompany weight gain: reduced mobility, lowered immune system, rock-bottom self esteem.

But I have no intention of fat-shaming any one person, because this data shows we are in the grip of a modern epidemic we don’t understand.

We all know and love someone who really struggles with weight issues. I have myself in the past, and blame is neither a kind nor effective strategy. Unwavering support on the other hand makes a difference.

Theories abound as to the cause of an obesity crisis that affects the western world and beyond; the South Pacific island of Samoa tops the scales globally, with 74.6 of all adults classified as obese.

From sugar to pollution, genes to stress, a great many factors are under the microscope. Dismissing a compulsion to overeat as greed is too simplistic.

But that’s not to say we are helpless or hopeless. On the contrary, we do have agency, we can both influence and support one another.

We need to counter cake culture in the workplace, for a start. Celebrating birthdays, engagement and successes with a sugarfest is in nobody’s best interest. You may not be addicted to icing and trans fats, but chances are someone in your department will be.

As for the whole infantile attitudes to “naughty but nice” and “I will if you will” treats – we need to bin them. Only dogs need treats, and having seen their dismal obesity statistics this week – 12 per cent of pets are obese – we need to put the kibosh on that, too.

These are, admittedly, small nudges, but in the right direction. The focus is on shared purpose, rather than finger-pointing.

I have lost count of the number of times I have witnessed girlfriends smilingly sabotage each other’s diets with an exhortation to stop being such a prissy killjoy and join in the double chocolate-chip muffin frenzy.

I’ve been both weak-willed victim and impatient perpetrator, and I’m not proud of either stance.

That’s the thing about humans: we are social creatures who look for approbation and strive to fit in. It’s a weakness – when it comes to ordering huge buckets of chicken wings to share – but we can harness it as a strength if we want to.

And that’s the nub of the issue. To wrest back control of our eating and drinking habits, we have to call time on the blame game and instead rally round each other so we can help ourselves.

A generation stopped smoking thanks to positive messages (and icky photographs on the packaging), and an acknowledgment of the effort it took.

We still actively cheer on those quitting nicotine. Giving up sugar is arguably even more difficult, but with the right empowering mindset, it will happen. 

Praise and encouragement from family and friends will always weigh the scales in favour of change. We need to be reminded that affirmation and a sense of achievement are sweeter than any confectionery.

Once we remember that, we will be on the way to saving not just our NHS, but ourselves.

Read Judith Woods at telegraph.co.uk every Thursday from 7pm