Lyn Brown

Member of Parliament for West Ham

Obesity and Health - Sept 2008

I have just come back from holiday and inevitably put on a few more pounds in weight.  Given I have spent the last two years slowly shedding some flab and excitedly buying news clothes, I really need to take some action and get rid of the result of too many ice creams and breakfast pastries and hopefully continue a downward spiral to a smaller size. 

My weight has been a problem for me since my early twenties, and I know that my struggles with weight are in common with many of you.  I have used a variety of methods and diets over the years and have had varying success.  Currently my weight loss is slow, I appear to be very healthy with it and, touch wood, it’s staying off.  But I have had help.  I have had support from friends and family, and a gift of a year’s membership to a gym.  I have spent twenty years in my fight against my weight and finally seem to have found a method that works for me.

Obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face. Weight problems are expensive to both the NHS and the wider economy. Two thirds of all adults and one third of all children are either overweight or obese. If the trends continue, a staggering 60% of men and 50% of women will be obese by 2050.  Being obese can have a detrimental knock on effect to the body, and is already responsible for 9000 premature deaths per year.

So what, if anything, should be done and who should do it? Does the Government have a responsibility to help us keep healthy? Should the NHS offer support to patients wanting to lose weight and improve their health?

There has been much about obesity in the news of late with Andrew Lansley the Conservative Health spokesman saying there was “no excuse” for being overweight, echoing David Cameron’s reported statement that the poor, obese and lazy spent too much time blaming social problems for their own shortcomings. It is easy to tell people that their problems are of their own making, that they should have eaten less and exercised more, not started smoking in their teens or worked harder at school.  But this approach is simplistic and belies the complexity of the social problems we face and allows governments to shirk their responsibilities.

Don’t get me wrong, individual responsibility matters.  Only I am able to make myself thinner and fitter.  But I do think we need to offer appropriate support to ensure our nation is as healthy as it can be.  Government research tells us that people want practical support and information, not just from GP surgeries, but from the nurseries and schools their children attend. They want clear and easy to read messages.  I also think we need to consider how we would make it easier for people to build exercise into their lives.

Over the summer the Health Service in Newham conducted a consultation with Newham residents, asking what they want or need from the health service in the borough, and for your thoughts and ideas about what you need to become or stay healthy.  I hope that many of you took the opportunity to contribute your views and ideas.

I think it’s easy for politicians to blame the poor, and the fat, for being poor and fat. It’s a simplistic analysis, which finds some resonance in parts of our press. But given that obesity can severely impact upon a person’s quality and length of life and is costing the NHS and wider economy an estimated £16bn a year, a responsible government should surely offer more than that, if nothing else it, makes cold economic sense. 

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