Media grossly overestimates the level and cost of obesity

Exaggerating numbers of overweight people is great for the diet industry, bad for people

Thank goodness January is over. There might now be less media coverage about diet, nutrition and obesity. RTÉ's Operation Transformation will soon be finished for another year. More rubbish is written about diets in January than any other month.

In the past few years obesity has been grossly exaggerated by the media and health commentators leading to sensationalist newspaper headlines such as "Ireland fattest country in Europe by 2030" and "Obesity costing Irish taxpayers billions".

The truth is that Ireland is not the fattest country in Europe. Malta is the fattest followed by the UK, Cyprus and then Ireland.

Irish obesity rates [body mass index of 30 or more] are actually very stable. In 2007, 24 per cent of Irish adults were obese and in 2015 the rate was almost unchanged at 23 per cent. The numbers of people who are overweight [body mass index levels between 25 and 30] are also stable. These were 39 per cent in 2007 and in 2015 the rate was 37 per cent.

Obesity rates in Irish children have also been wildly exaggerated. The truth is that overall levels of obesity in children have either fallen or stabilised depending on age according to the Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative Ireland.


Now it seems that the cost of obesity to society has been grossly overestimated. A new discussion paper from the UK think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), argues that “the ‘burden-on-the-taxpayer’ narrative, propagated by public health campaigners, is overblown. While claims of a crippling cost are a good way to get media attention… they irresponsibly incite resentment of a vulnerable group”.

The IEA estimated the savings that overweight and obese people bring UK taxpayers by dying prematurely and claim that ignoring these savings leads to substantial overestimation of the true burden of elevated body mass index (BMI) to the taxpayer.

Each obese individual lost 12 years of life on average. Savings taken into consideration included pensions and other benefit payments avoided through early deaths caused by BMI. The paper shows that the net cost is 0.3 per cent of the overall UK's total budget in 2016 or less than two per cent of the NHS budget in the same year.

In Ireland, the cost of obesity to society has also been grossly overestimated. The recently published Obesity Policy and Action Plan – A Healthy Weight for Ireland, cites a Safefood study which estimated the “burden of adult obesity” at €1.13 billion based on 2012 figures.

This is equal to two per cent of the overall budget and eight per cent of the health budget or between four and six times the actual net cost as calculated by the IEA.

The Safefood calculations did not take savings from premature deaths into account. As Irish overweight and obesity rates are almost identical to those of the UK, the actual cost of obesity to the Irish taxpayer can be extrapolated from the IEA figures at €28 million, not €1.13 billion.


Exaggerating levels of overweight and obesity is great for the diet industry, weight management classes and motivation clinics. The diet industry has made maintaining a healthy weight a complicated business.

Operation Transformation also gives the impression that people need help from experts to develop a healthy lifestyle. According to the experts on the programme, people need to weigh, measure, and portion food properly.

Eating healthily is simple, as the author Michael Pollan once said: "Eat food, not a lot, mostly plants."

In fact, all anyone needs to change health habits is a nudge from their GP or practice nurse. This is known as a brief intervention which is the most effective of all known healthcare interventions.

The new media literacy policy from the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) might encourage everyone to question the accuracy of media information, particularly health information.

According to the policy, people now have access to information “likely to threaten social cohesion by inciting hatred of particular groups or promoting extremist views” such as blaming fat people for their health problems.

Media literacy empowers people to “counter unfair and inaccurate representation, to challenge extremist views and, ultimately, to make better choices”.

One of the skills the BAI wants to develop in viewers and listeners is to “analyse and assess the motivations of the content producers”.

Perhaps the BAI could start with RTÉ and Operation Transformation which perpetuates the myth that obesity is on the rise and that Ireland will be the fattest country in Europe within a decade.