International Comparisons

The following chart uses Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) data. Data from the Health Survey for England for 2011; Welsh Health Survey for 2011; Scottish Health Survey for 2011; Survey of Lifestyle, Attitudes and Nutrition, Republic of Ireland for 2007; and Health Survey Northern Ireland for 2011/12 are also included.

The chart shows that England has a high prevalence of obesity compared to most other countries in the OECD. Only Scotland, New Zealand, Hungary, Mexico and the United States have a higher prevalence than England.

Download: International Prevalence Adult Obesity (revised August 2013)

Figure 1: Adult obesity prevalence, latest available data

What are the issues when comparing obesity prevalence internationally?

Some countries publish obesity prevalence based on measured height and weight, whereas other countries rely on self reported measures to produce obesity prevalence figures. It is likely that obesity prevalence estimates based on self-reported measures are lower than those based on actual measurements. This difference limits comparison between studies.

Obesity prevalence data from only 11 of the 33 countries presented in Figure 2 are based on measured weight and height. The data here show that countries which measure height and weight have high obesity prevalence (with the exception of Japan and South Korea).

This chart uses the latest available data. It is important to note that there are differences in the years for the prevalence estimates. Where possible, prevalence estimates for the same time period should be compared.

Trend data are useful to compare obesity prevalence over time. Trend data can be seen in the International Prevalence Adult Obesity download (revised August 2013). Most of the data here are obtained from national health surveys which are likely to be representative of the general population. Only single year estimates for each country are presented. These data are not age or sex standardised so differences in the age and sex structure of the populations have not been accounted for.

How does the prevalence of obesity in England compare with other countries and in particular with the UK and Ireland?

The prevalence of obesity in England is estimated using measured weight and height. The 2011 estimate is 24.8% and is high compared to most other countries, with Japan and South Korea having the lowest estimates of obesity prevalence. Estimates for Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland are also based on measured weight and height, but the estimate for Wales is based on self reported height and weight and is therefore likely to be an underestimate. Scotland appears to have a higher obesity prevalence compared to England but as no measures of uncertainty are provided for these estimates we cannot be sure this is a real difference.

Click here to download NOO briefing paper on International Comparisons of Obesity Prevalence published June 2009

International Trends

The prevalence of obesity in England has more than doubled in the last twenty five years. Although this increase in obesity prevalence has been seen in virtually every country in the world, the rate of increase in England has been particularly high (see figure below).

Trend data for overweight and obesity prevalence are available from a number of sources, including OECD (presented in the figure above) and WHO. Trend data are not available consistently for all countries. The figure below presents data for countries with the most complete and most up to date data.

Figure 2: Trends in adult prevalence of obesity – percentage of the adult population assessed as obese in a selection of countries, 1978 – 2011

Trends in adult prevalence of obesity (BMI ≥30kg/m2) – percentage of the adult population assessed as obese in a selection of countries

Obese defined as BMI ≥ 30kg/m2
Source: OECD http://www.ecosante.org/index2.php?base=OCDE&langs=ENG&langh=ENG
*Self reported data (prevalence rates for the other countries are based on measured data)

Further reading

Health Survey for England 2011. The Health and Social Care Information Centre Available at: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/article/1165/Search-catalogue?q=title:%22Health+Survey+for+England%22&area=&size=10&sort=RelevanceDesc

UK prevalence and trends

Obesity prevalence appears to be increasing in all countries within the UK apart from Ireland and Northern Ireland, although the most recent data for Ireland is currently five years old. Scotland continues to have the highest prevalence of obesity in the UK. Figure 2 presents the best available data for each country.

Figure 2: Trend in adult prevalence of obesity in the UK (BMI≥30kg/m2) – percentage of the adult population assessed as obese in the UK and Ireland, 1995 – 2011

Uk Prev T