The staggering £370m annual cost of Northern Ireland’s obesity epidemic has been revealed in a major new study.
More than £1m is wasted every day through direct healthcare and lost productivity because people are too fat.
The report warns urgent action is required to address an issue which poses a major challenge to the health service.
The huge financial impact of obesity was revealed in research conducted by experts in association with the healthy eating organisation, safefood.
It is the first estimate of the costs of obesity and overweight people in Northern Ireland. Researchers say that about a quarter of the £370m annual obesity bill — some £92m — goes towards direct healthcare costs.
The main contributors to health costs were cardiac disease (44%), type 2 diabetes (9%) and colorectal cancer (12%).
The remainder is indirect costs in lost productivity and absenteeism amounting to some £277m.
Safefood chief executive Martin Higgins said the figures underlined the need to address the obesity epidemic.
“We now have reliable, contemporary and locally relevant figures for the annual economic cost of weight-related ill-health in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“While it is acknowledged that these are conservative figures and don’t reflect the human and social costs, they show a compelling case for obesity prevention, based on changes in our food environment and physical activity levels.”
The research found obesity and excess weight, when combined, accounted for about 2.8% and 2.7% of total health expenditure in Northern Ireland and the Republic respectively.
The findings also suggest that obesity, rather than simply being overweight, is the major component of healthcare costs.
Lead researcher Professor Ivan Perry, from University College Cork, said the obesity epidemic in children and adults represented a clear example of market failure.
“The food sector is currently regulated to ensure food safety,” he said.
“Policy makers need to consider whether there is a need to extend this regulatory framework to address the effects of diet on health and wellbeing.”
Dr Cliodhna Foley-Nolan, the director of human health and nutrition at safefood, described obesity as a ticking time bomb.
“With last week’s survey indicating that obesity is on the increase, up 2% in adults and 4% in children, this represents a worrying trend given the previous two surveys indicated a levelling off,” she added.
Obesity is a term used to describe somebody who is very overweight with a high degree of body fat. Anyone whose body mass index — their weight in kilograms divided by their height in metres squared — is between 30 and 40 is considered obese. Anyone with a BMI 40-plus is considered ‘morbidly obese’. Studies have claimed obesity is more dangerous than smoking. The associated health risks include type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer.