The UK faces an obesity crisis. But what are the underlying causes of poor health and what conduces to flourishing?

Weekend Word, BBC Radio Wales, 28/11/2014



Yesterday we heard that Wales’ has the biggest childhood obesity problem in the UK and one of the worst in Europe. On the same day NICE, The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, recommended that people with diabetes linked to obesity should be quickly assessed for weight-loss surgery.

For adults and children alike, obesity can mean health problems and psychological difficulties. It’s expensive, too: treating the two million people with type-2 diabetes alone accounts for ten percent of the NHS budget.

So what’s happening? The more you dig into the causes of obesity the more complex the picture becomes. NICE recognises that surgery won’t stop people over-eating: they also need help to change habits, eat better and exercise more. And it recommends psychological support because, as we discover every time we feel down and reach for a chocolate bar, there’s a link between what we eat and how we feel.

I’ve recently been learning how Scotland is responding to these challenges. Like South Wales, central Scotland changed profoundly in the 1980s when the docks, pits and heavy industry closed down. The result wasn’t just poverty. The changes also brought a feeling of disconnection and hopelessness and, in turn, that affected people’s health. Research connects good health with the feeling that we can make sense of what happens to us and respond to the challenges we face. Meanwhile, pessimism and feeling powerless bring poor health.

The Scottish government concluded that they needed to address the social and psychological sources of the country’s health problems. Because our sense of coherence is laid down in our earliest years, they’ve prioritised helping parents to give children a consistent sense of being valued, while other policies help adults feel they have a place in society.

Being healthy and avoiding obesity isn’t just about our bodies. It depends, in many cases, on feeling that our lives matter – that there’s a reason to get out of bed, take exercise and stop smoking. Buddhism teaches that it’s an illusion to think we’re independent, isolated individuals. Meaning and a sense of flourishing come when we feel in our bones the greater truth that we’re connected to each other and have a contribution to make. Good health flows from that, and it can flow on to our children.

An excellent podcast interview with Sir Harry Burns describes the thinking behind the Scotland’s Wellbeing policies: