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Men and obesity: where’s the help with weight loss?

Britain has a weight problem that no number of subtly oversized black T-shirts can hide. The scale of the issue is daunting: 67% of men and 57% of women are either overweight or obese, and by 2030, those figures are predicted to rise to 74% and 64% respectively. But while the majority of reports focus on the nation’s gradual slump towards obesity, those same figures reveal another, seldom-told story. Namely, that weight is more of an issue for men, yet very little is being done to help them. A recent freedom of information request by the charity Men’s Health Forum revealed that 110,324 women had received weight-loss help from their local authorities in 2013/4, but just 29,197 men. In other words, you are 277% more likely to get help with weight loss if you are a woman.

“These figures are pretty shocking,” explains Martin Tod, CEO of Men’s Health Forum. “We want to see local councils making much bigger efforts to design their services to work for men. This is particularly important because men comprise three-quarters of premature deaths from coronary heart disease – and middle-aged men are twice as likely as women to get diabetes.”

There are 20.7 million overweight men in the UK, and the local authorities charged with helping them are reaching just 0.1% of that figure; for women, it’s a scarely better 0.6%. The Conservatives have made encouraging noises about enshrining preventative action at the heart of healthcare, but with cuts wiping millions from precisely the budgets where these interventions come from, it becomes hard to see how we are going to tackle the issue.

I confess, I have an extremely vested interest in this topic, both as a formerly fat man and as an entrepreneur who runs a business delivering men-only weight-loss groups. My own history neatly illustrates why more men aren’t engaged with weight loss. In 2012, I weighed nearly 17 stone and was desperate to lose weight. I was amazed at the struggle I had to find anyone who could offer to help (relatively) normal blokes like me. On a visit to my GP, he tutted earnestly at my expansive gut, handed me a pamphlet and wished me luck. There was no weight-management group to support me, or relevant interventions of any kind.

This left me at the mercy of a commercial diet industry that has jettisoned the idea that men might be an area worth focusing on. Typically, groups such as Weight Watchers and Slimming World are more than 90% female and, as profits shrink, there seems to be little appetite to do anything other than focus on what they see as their core audience. At my heaviest, I remember sitting in a Weight Watchers meeting listening to how my period could cause bloating, wondering how many other men were being similarly let down. As Professor Alison Avenell pointed out in her excellent research into men and weight management, the perception of dieting as a “feminised realm” has damaged men’s relationship with weight loss, and left them disenfranchised from this vital area of health. When you see that Diet Coke is marketed at women and Coke Zero is marketed at men, you begin to see the scope of the issue.

Incredibly, a misguided perception that men aren’t actually that interested in dieting persists. Someone should really tell the 44% of men who tried to diet in 2013. Compare that to the 25% who dieted in 2003, and guess which way this trend is going: it doesn’t take a genius to see that weight loss is becoming a major issue for men. Yet despite this, the help offered to men about losing weight is practically nonexistent – we just get fobbed off with the fitness industry’s “get a six pack in six weeks” nonsense.

For me, it took a long time to get to a place where I could apply the “eat less, move more” mantra and lose more than 60lbs. After failing to find any real support, I started a crowdfunding campaign to launch, a project that offers free support to men who want to lose weight. We raised 102% of our £9,000 target and got support from Jamie Oliver and many of the weight-loss organisations. Perhaps more importantly, we discovered thousands of men from every corner of the world who had the same ambition and problems I did – they wanted to lose weight but were struggling to find support. This is the “not optimal” situation that Avenell’s research describes; however, if you look hard enough, and squint slightly, there are signs of optimism.

Perhaps most importantly, Avenell’s research has been distilled into a best-practice guide by Public Health England and Men’s Health Forum. Professor Kevin Fenton, director of health and wellbeing at Public Health England, has spoken with real enthusiasm about how more needs to be done on the issue. For their part, local authorities seem keen to deliver the sort of services that could see more male lives being saved. At Man v Fat, we are already working with North Somerset to deliver free weight-management programmes following the best-practice guidelines, and our plan is to work with more authorities, and do our bit to make the situation better for those 20.7 million men who simply want to lose some weight. Ultimately, if we want to lower the £5.1bn cost of treating obesity-related conditions – and save lives – it will mean accepting that 0.1% is not good enough.


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