A nation in denial: 25 million overweight adults risk health and happiness

Article date: 29 April 2014

  • Third of obese and half of overweight people think their health is very good
  • Quarter of Brits do not have a single daily portion of fruit or veg
  • A third have daily snacks high in sugar and fat
  • 47% of overweight and 28% of obese people have no desire to lose weight

Aviva’s first Health Check UK Report reveals that although half of UK adults1 are classified as either overweight (31%) or obese (19%) according to their BMI, a significant proportion believe they are in very good or excellent health, unaware of the potential health risks their lifestyle brings.

The report also shows the damaging effect that unhealthy levels of BMI are having on happiness and self-esteem. And while sedentary lifestyles and poor diet take their toll on waistlines, financial concerns are compounding the UK’s poor health as the leading cause of anxiety, depression and insomnia.

The findings come from the new report which aims, over time, to track the physical and mental health of the nation through trends in diet, exercise, body mass index (BMI2), illness and general wellbeing. Based on a survey of 2,000 UK adults, Health Check UK identifies patterns of health and wellbeing across regions, generations and body types, identifying problems particular to these demographics. The report also has a spotlight on the damaging effect that financial, work and family pressures are having on the health of the ‘sandwich generation,’ which is detailed in a separate media release.

Denial of weight-related health issues

A high proportion of those with unhealthy BMI levels think they are healthy, with a third (32%) of obese people and half (48%) of those who are overweight saying that they are in very good or even excellent health.

This is despite a significantly higher proportion of obese Britons visiting their GP for conditions known to be weight-related such as diabetes and high blood pressure, compared to those with a healthy BMI

A quarter (26%) of those who are obese sought treatment for high blood pressure in the last year, compared to 19% of those who are overweight and 9% who have a healthy BMI. A fifth (19%) visited their GP for diabetes or thyroid complaints (compared with 9% for those overweight and 3% for those who have a healthy weight.) Arthritis and musculoskeletal conditions like back pain are also more prevalent amongst the obese.

Mental health issues such as depression are more common too: 17% of those who are obese sought help for a mental health condition from their GP in the last year, compared with a UK average of 13%. Surprisingly, few of those who are obese - just 12% - sought help for managing their weight.

5 a day: caffeine consumption greater than fruit and veg

A quarter of the UK population (25%) do not even have a single portion of fruit or vegetable each day – a far cry from the 5 a day recommended by the government and. the recent call for a minimum of 7 a day. Just one fifth (20%) meet the target of 5 a day.

More Britons however have at least five shots of caffeine every day, with 28% having at least five cups of tea or coffee as part of their daily routine.

A third (34%) have at least one portion of chocolate or crisps every day and a quarter (25%) have daily cakes, biscuits and pastries. The nation’s sugar intake is further supplemented with a quarter (26%) having at least one fizzy drink a day – rising to 33% amongst the obese.

Exercise levels

The UK is generally making efforts to keep fit, with 58% saying they exercise at least twice a week as recommended by the Government, though one in six (17%) count household chores as a workout, raising concerns that some may not be as active as they believe.

Amongst the obese, around a third (29%) never exercise, compared to a UK average of 17%. Over a third of the UK, 35%, also say they don’t know how much exercise they should be taking, while over half (56%) say they know they should do more but find it boring or hard work. Four out of 10 (39%) say they’re too tired.

Mental wellbeing

Over a third of the UK population (34%) has suffered from stress in the last year and a fifth (21%) has experienced anxiety. Similar numbers of people have faced depression (21%) and been affected by insomnia (20%).

Of Britons who say their health is poor, over half (53%) have suffered from stress compared with a quarter of people who are in good health. Rates of insomnia, anxiety and depression are also higher for those with poor health.

With a continued squeeze on household budgets as the nation struggles out of recession, it is no surprise that financial concerns and work pressures are the two highest causes of stress. 37% of people with stress say work pressure is the cause, while money worries are cited as the main reason for anxiety (33%), depression (26%) and insomnia (22%).

The report also shows how happiness declines as BMI increases, with self-esteem clearly affected by weight. Just a third of obese people (33%) are happy with how they look compared with 79% of people with a healthy BMI. Two fifths (39%) of obese and a quarter (25%) of overweight people also say they are depressed about their weight.

Good intentions, lack of motivation

Losing weight is the nation’s biggest health ambition, with two in five people (39%) saying they want to improve their BMI. However, half (47%) of those classed as overweight and over a quarter (28%) of those who are obese have no desire to lose weight and are ignoring the need to change their diet and do more exercise.

Just a quarter (24%) of those who are obese want to feel more physically fit and while the majority (81%) are aware that they should eat more healthily, just a fifth (21%) say they actively want to eat a more balanced diet.

Half of those who are obese (49%) and a third who are overweight (35%) also state that they are unhappy with how they look but lack motivation to do anything about it.

Who is more at risk of poor BMI?

Women are more likely to be a healthy weight, 46% compared with 41% of men, and not surprisingly people gain weight as they age, with 23% of over-55s surveyed falling into the obese range. However, there is a significant acceleration in the rates of poor BMI in the mid-30s, with 37% of 25-34 year olds either overweight or obese, rising sharply to 54% of 35-44 year-olds.

There is also a clear north-south divide when it comes to healthy BMI, with those living in the north more likely to be overweight or obese. Wales, the North East and Yorkshire and the Humber top the table as the heaviest regions in the UK, with 56% of residents being overweight or obese. Scotland comes in just below at 54%. London has the highest proportion of people with a healthy BMI (50%), followed by the South West (49%).

Dr Doug Wright, medical director for Aviva UK Health, says:

“Although losing weight is the top health ambition for the UK as a whole, any plans to lead a healthier lifestyle are being neglected under the pressures of modern living. The nation is falling woefully short of hitting the recommended 5 a day target of fruit and vegetable portions and too many people are failing to fit proper exercise into their lives.

“Being overweight brings with it the potential for serious health conditions, yet a significant proportion of those with high BMI levels in the UK are living in denial by claiming they are in very good health and showing no desire to lose weight. The risks to their health are well known, with weight-related conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and even some types of cancer. 

“Many people are failing to grasp the real importance of taking control of their current and future health, by making changes to their diet and taking more exercise. By reducing the number of people in the UK who are overweight or obese, we can help stem the rise in weight-related illness and improve the overall happiness and wellbeing of our nation.”

Download the Aviva Health Check UK Report

Download the infographic

  1. ONS National Population 2012 projections. Table A3-1, Principal Projection - UK Population Single Year of Age, 2012-based (Excel sheet 270Kb)  With the number of UK adults aged 18 or over projected as 50.181million, 50% of this figure (c.25million) is shown to be overweight or obese according to the Aviva Health Check Report data.
  2. The Aviva Health Check UK Report calculated the body mass index (BMI) of 1,998 UK adults from height and weight measurements provided, (see methodology below). Standardised NHS classifications of BMI are used in the report as follows: Below 18.4 is classified as underweight; between 18.5 and 24.9 is healthy. Between 25 and 29.9 is overweight and over 30 is classified as obese.

- Ends -

If you are a journalist and would like further information, please contact: Melissa Loughran: Aviva Press Office: 01904 452791: 07800 691947: Melissa.loughran@aviva.co.uk

Notes to editors:


The Aviva Health Check UK Report is based on an online survey conducted by ICM research for Aviva UK Health. The survey was carried out between the 24th January and 7th February 2014 with respondents from ICM’s online panel. 1,998 interviews were conducted amongst a nationally representative sample of the UK adult population.  Respondents’ BMI was calculated from their height and weight declarations.

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