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  1. Spotlight on Policy
25 September 2019

A third of Scottish adults are obese, survey finds

Despite some improvement in diets wider problems with alcohol and food insecurity persist.

By Rohan Banerjee

People in Scotland are drinking fewer sugary soft drinks and eating fewer unhealthy snacks such as cakes and biscuits, but around a third of the adult population north of the border is still considered obese. The Scottish Health Survey, which is commissioned annually by government ministers, was published this week, after sourcing data from around 7,000 adults and children about their lifestyle and dietary habits.

In some cases, there appears to have been a conscious effort from Scottish people to be more mindful about what they eat and drink. The survey found, for example, that the proportion of adults consuming high-fat fizzy drinks every day has halved in the last two years, from 20 per cent in 2016 to 10 per cent in 2018. As for biscuits, last year 27 per cent of Scottish adults were reported to have eaten biscuits at least once a day, representing a fall of around 6 percentage points on the figure from five years before. And over the same period of time, there has been a fall of around 4 percentage points in the proportion of Scottish adults eating cakes at least twice a week, with 31 per cent of the population now falling into this category.

Despite these promising trends, however, the country’s overall obesity rate is still high, with 28 per cent of adults being classed as such. In 2018, 65 per cent of adults in Scotland were classed as either overweight or obese, with that proportion having not changed since 2008. The average adult Body Mass Index (BMI) in Scotland is now 27.7, up from 27.1 in 2003.   

In contrast to the progress made on sugary soft drinks, alcohol consumption, linked closely with obesity, has not declined. Nearly a quarter (24 per cent) of Scottish adults are still binge drinking, which represents little change on the rate recorded five years ago. At present, the average Scottish adult drinks 12.5 units of alcohol a week.

The survey also found that just 15 per cent of Scottish children ate the recommended five portions of fruit or vegetables a day, while 10 per cent did not have any fruit or vegetables the day before they were questioned.

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And there were socioeconomic concerns raised by the survey, too. In 2018, 9 per cent of Scottish adults admitted to worrying about running out of food over the course of a week or month due to a lack of money or other resources. For the years 2017 and 2018 combined, this figure rises to 25 per cent among single parents, with roughly a fifth of this group (21 per cent) saying they had eaten less often than they should in the past year, and 13 per cent saying they had run out of food. According to the research body, ScotCen, which carried out the Scottish Health Survey, food insecurity (the lack of access to food) could lead people to make unhealthier choices when they do eat.

ScotCen’s research director, Joanne McLean, said: “While it is promising to see a strong decline in national sugary drink consumption, overall, there has been little or no improvement in many other vital areas, including obesity, smoking and food insecurity and we are yet to see a positive impact of minimum unit pricing on alcohol consumption levels.”

As Spotight reported in its supplement on Scotland earlier this year, life expectancies, in general, are lower north of the border, with diet and lifestyle contributing to this trend alongside wider issues with the Scottish economy. According to statistics published by National Records of Scotland, the life expectancy of people born in Scotland between 2015 and 2017 is 79 – the average taken between 77 for men and 81 for women – which is the lowest in Western Europe.

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