Warning over region's obesity epidemic

By Rebecca SheppardA SENIOR health official has warned there will be serious consequences for the NHS in the region if the “obesity epidemic” is not tackled.

By Rebecca Sheppard

A SENIOR health official has warned there will be serious consequences for the NHS in the region if the “obesity epidemic” is not tackled.

The alarm was sounded as new figures showed people in East Anglia were typically heavier for their height compared to the national average.

Dr Tony Jewell, director of public health at Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire Strategic Health Authority, said: “The obesity epidemic risks reversing all the gains we have made in reducing circulatory diseases in the last 30 years.

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“Obesity - which has almost tripled in the last 20 years - is also causing an alarming rise in diabetes, which can be a devastating condition.”

According to figures released yesterday, the average body mass index (BMI) for men and women in East Anglia has increased between 1994 and 2002.

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The index calculates whether people are a healthy weight for their height, with a figure of more than 25 indicating they are overweight and more than 30 showing they are obese.

The average BMI for men in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire in 2000 to 2002 was 26.9 - higher than the 26.8 average for England.

Meanwhile, women in the region were even more overweight, with an average BMI of 27, compared to the national average of 26.6.

The health authority has warned that the increase in obesity and the associated rise in diabetes was putting a strain on the NHS, with diabetes treatment now accounting for an estimated 5% of the NHS budget, a figure expected to rise to 10% by 2010.

“More action is needed to ensure the NHS is not swamped by the health implications of obesity and resultant diabetes. The causes of obesity are a society-wide problem, but it is the NHS which will have to pick up the bill,” said Dr Jewell.

“Over the coming months and years we will be looking to work more closely with local government and other partners to develop prevention strategies, especially aimed at young people.”

A spokeswoman for Essex Strategic Health Authority said it was “faring well” compared to the national picture, but was unable to supply any figures.

A Department of Health report, also released yesterday, showed the prevalence of obesity among children aged two to 10 in England had increased from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.7% in 2003.

The percentage who were either overweight or obese had also risen from 22.7% in 1995 to 27.7% in 2003.

But the biggest increase in obesity was among children aged eight to 10, where prevalence rose from 11.2% in 1995 to 16.5% in 2003.

Dr Gareth Richards, president of the Suffolk division of the British Medical Association, said: “Being obese does increase your chances of heart disease, arthritis and diabetes and we are particularly alarmed by the increase in type two diabetes in children, which is entirely related to obesity.

“Being diabetic is bad news as far as life expectancy, heart disease and kidney disease is concerned. By being overweight you lay yourself open to all sorts of problems in later life.

“Diabetes is a costly thing to treat and the complications to diabetes is even more costly. Kidney failure requires dialysis, kidney transplants. There are also drugs for diabetes. Then there are the strokes that go with heart disease. The whole thing opens up a large problem.”

A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council said it had always met or exceeded government guidelines for school meals.

She added: “Our menus have less processed food and our recipes have reduced levels of sugar, fat and salt. Meals are prepared by dedicated kitchen teams, supported by our area teams and trainers.

“School caterers have the potential to provide approximately 15% of a child's diet throughout the year and we are determined to do our part in providing enjoyable, nutritious meals whilst informing children about the importance of a balanced diet.”

Health experts from Tendring Primary Care Trust have been working fpr the past three years with obese children referred to a special scheme by GPs and school nurses.

Chris French, its public health improvement specialist, said: “We get them swimming and taking part in other sports, but if they don't like that we get them doing walks as well.

“We try to get the whole family involved. We find that where there is one obese child, there's likely to be a family culture of eating snacks, chocolate and crisps.

“Dieticians will also advise and get the kids to keep food diaries. We monitor their body mass index and other things and it's clear there is an effect on self-esteem too.”

Essex County Council is in the middle of a project to promote healthier eating and physical activity in schools

Carey Bennet, its head of schools service, said: “Evidence shows that healthy and happy pupils tend to perform better both at school and in later life. As such, we see health issues in their broadest sense as being of vital importance to the overall health of our schools.”


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