A global look at the UK’s obesity crisis

overwight

At work today I put my weight, height, age and nationality into the BBC BMI global comparison tool*.

Its results were stark. In Uganda (where I currently live) my body mass index (BMI) of 22.1 is higher than 71% of males aged 15-29. That said, it is also in the ‘normal’ range.

What caught my eye though was when I swapped around the country of residence to the UK. Suddenly it goes from telling me I have a higher BMI than 71% of Ugandan males of a similar age, to telling me I have a lower BMI than 78% of British males aged 14-29.

Both in Uganda and in the UK my weight to height ratio puts me in the minority – in Uganda for being bigger than average, and in the UK for being lower than average.

The fact that I have a healthier BMI than many Brits is perhaps not surprising considering that 67% of guys in the UK are considered overweight or obese (57% of women).

As an article in the Guardian notes:

“Fat, not thin, is today’s norm [in the UK].”

The same article however goes onto explain why we have stopped noticing how fat we are as a nation stating:

But studies show that we don’t notice because it has happened gradually and we have got used to seeing people who are overweight.” 

In short, if our friends and family are overweight, this reinforces a message that says we are ‘normal’ and not overweight.

This is of course nothing short of self-delusion. A form of denial with potentially serious consequences.

This self-delusion combined has allowed me in the past to put on weight to an unhealthy level. Like most people my weight fluctuates over the years. On one occasion a few years back I was slightly alarmed to notice that I slipped over 12 stone (76 kg – giving me a BMI of about 26 well into the overweight range) but I had not necessarily conceptualised that my weight was considerably too high or the health impacts that this was having.

This was partly self-delusion but also because I was surrounded by much fatter people.

I wonder how many other Brits (and middle-class Ugandans) would be equally alarmed now if they were to weigh themselves and place that on the BMI chart.

My guess is that many would be deemed ‘overweight’ who do not think of themselves as such.

Of course, this isn’t just a vanity thing, being overweight has serious health repercussions. For example, the length of your life is dictated by your weight, we know that on average moderate obesity cuts life expectancy by two to four years and severe obesity by an entire decade.

This is in part because obesity is closely tied to potentially serious and/or fatal conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer, and strokes.  

Although perversely I think it is easier to live an unhealthy lifestyle in Uganda (carb heavy diets, sugary drinks, cheap beer, busy roads discouraging walking and cycling etc) I think it is much harder to be in denial about your weight here because of the relative skinniness of those around you.

Coming back to the UK for short periods from living abroad in contrast I was shocked how visually obvious it was that we are in the midst of obesity epidemic.

This global perspective doesn’t remove my own levels of self-delusion (especially when the prospect of another cheap beer is offered) but it does mean it is harder to ignore the obesity levels of others around you.

More information:

* Before someone comments, I accept that BMI is a crass tool for an individual’s weight. It is simply used here as a signpost to a wider problem of obesity in the UK. 

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1 Comment

Filed under Health

One response to “A global look at the UK’s obesity crisis

  1. BMI is a big dodgy though because it is weight in relation to height, and doesn’t budget for taller people often being proportionally broader – it was my understanding that it had been discredited some years ago as a direct consequence. It doesn’t take into account the difference between muscle weight and fat weight, either. I think realistic depictions of healthy human body shapes in the media would be a great help towards enabling us to see where we fit.

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