Weighing on the nation: The dire consequences of obesity and fatty liver disease for health and economy

Over the past 30 years, successive governments have implemented 14 strategies in an attempt to reduce obesity. Unfortunately, all of these strategies have failed to address the fundamental issues in our broken food system. The obesity crisis not only poses a severe threat to population health but also hampers our nation’s economic growth, reduces workforce productivity, and adds significant avoidable pressures to our NHS.

The broken food system is a major contributor to the obesity and fatty liver disease epidemic. Shockingly, two-thirds of adults in the UK are either overweight or obese, with an estimated 70% of them also having fatty liver disease. Fatty liver disease has devastating consequences, exacerbating the risks of heart disease, diabetes, and various cancers such as liver, breast, and bowel cancer.

On 8 June, which marks International NASH (Non-Alcohol-Related Steatohepatitis) Day, there will be a Westminster Hall debate focusing on “preventing obesity and fatty liver disease.” NASH represents the most severe form of fatty liver disease, which affects up to 12% of the adult population. Alarming trends in childhood obesity are also being observed, with up to 40% of obese children estimated to have fatty liver disease—a scenario that was inconceivable just a decade ago.

Liver disease, much like obesity, has seen a significant increase since the 1970s, with mortality rates rising by 400%. The state of liver disease serves as a barometer for the failing health of our nation. Although 90% of liver disease cases are preventable, it still leads to over 10,000 deaths annually, with mortality rates four times higher in the most deprived areas.  Additionally, liver cancer is now the fastest-growing cause of cancer death in the UK, claiming approximately 5,800 lives each year.

This debate will go beyond public health and delve into the broader impact of declining national health on workforce productivity. The nation’s health is a valuable economic asset, and as population health declines, so does workforce activity and productivity. This decline damages overall growth and living standards. Obesity plays a significant role in deteriorating health and costs the economy a staggering £58 billion annually. The projected cost of obesity to the NHS alone is set to rise to £9.7 billion by 2050, with obese patients already costing the NHS twice as much as those with a healthy weight. To put it simply, when individuals are unwell, they are unable to work or be as productive, leading to increased sick leave. Since 2010, long-term sickness has risen by one-third to 7 million cases.

Obesity is an unintended consequence of our broken food system. The prevalence of obesity can be attributed to the production and marketing of high-fat, high-sugar, and high-salt foods, which yield the highest profits while inflicting significant damage on the nation’s health and wealth.

While there is a solution to this issue, it will require political leadership and resolve. Unfortunately, the electoral cycle often disincentivises long-term solutions. Previous attempts to promote a “personal responsibility” approach have repeatedly failed. To effectively tackle this generational health challenge, the government needs to create a level playing field and provide market certainty for the industry. This will enable the development of a food system that improves the nation’s health.

The industry has shown commitment to reformulating products that are high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS). However, significant reformulation efforts cannot be achieved without a regulatory framework in place. This framework is necessary to ensure fair competition and market certainty. As highlighted by Sir Chris Whitty during his recent appearance before the Health Select Committee, industry representatives have expressed their willingness to pursue reformulation, but they also emphasise the need for regulations to prevent their competitors from undercutting them.

Implementing population-wide measures, such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (commonly known as the sugar tax), has proven highly effective in reducing the harm caused by the unhealthy food and beverage environment. In addition, it is crucial to enforce multi-buy restrictions and establish a 9 pm watershed on junk food advertising, both on TV and online.

If we aim to successfully compete in the global economy, we must prioritize the health of our workforce and nation. This demands bold action from the government to develop a clear plan for the industry, establish a level playing field, and provide market certainty. These steps are necessary to reshape our broken food system and ensure a healthier future for all.


Maggie Throup is the Conservative MP for Erewash.