Men's Health Week 2017: Gender bias and the obesity crisis

16/06/17 . News

Important new study shows NHS gender weight-loss bias is impacting men’s health

The NHS should urgently tackle a ‘gender bias’ among health professionals as they appear to be reluctant to refer men to weight management services despite positive results, experts from the University of Oxford, Men’s Health Forum and Slimming World suggest. 

Currently men make up only one in 10 patients attending commercial weight management programmes like Slimming World through referral by the NHS, despite being more likely to be overweight than women and more likely to carry dangerous excess fat around the waist.

Now a study of 940 patients by the University of Oxford has shown that when health professionals verbally offer referral to men and women equally, based on BMI and without the risk of gender bias, the proportion of referrals who are male jumps to nearly four in 10 – a rise of almost 400%.

Study author, Professor Paul Aveyard of the University of Oxford, said:

It looks like GPs and nurses are presuming that men would not want to use a commercial weight management programme, but our evidence suggests they would if health professionals offered it and recommended it.

Our study found that an NHS referral and a simple recommendation like ‘I think this could be good for you’ is enough to persuade many men to cast aside any reservations they might have and to give a weight management group a try. And our data supports previous findings that when men do join these groups, they do very well – even better than women in fact. These schemes represent good value for the NHS.

The findings were released during Men’s Health Week (12-18 June), which is this year focusing on raising awareness of the dangers of carrying excess fat around the waist.

Martin Tod, Chief Executive of the Men’s Health Forum, added:

What this research shows is that it's not just men who need to change their attitudes about their weight - health professionals do too.  Men who might benefit from weight management services are missing out because they're not being told about them. Yet when they are told about them, many men do use them and, despite what might be expected, many men really benefit from them." 

Latest figures from NHS Digital show that 68% of men and 58% of women are overweight or obese, and yet weight worries are often associated more with women than men. This could be because men are less likely to vocalise them. Last year’s ‘Machobesity Report’, by Slimming World, revealed that while 95% of men want to lose weight, mainly for health reasons, men typically keep weight worries to themselves for more than six years on average.

Paul Sharpe, Slimming World’s Partnerships Manager, who manages the organisation’s NHS referral programmes and lost 3st himself, says:

We welcome the results of this study. This is a particularly important issue because not only are men more likely to be overweight than women, they’re also less likely to talk about it and less likely to take action to manage their weight.

Once they set their mind to it though, men do seem to be good at slimming down. While women lose an average of 4.3% of their body weight in three months at Slimming World, men lose an impressive 5.7% - that’s way above the 3% that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence says can improve health.

And it seems that more and more men are becoming open to the idea of seeking weight loss support. There are now 60,000 men attending Slimming World and the vast majority of our groups now have a few men in them.

Public health commissioners are increasingly looking at ways to engage more men in evidence-based interventions and we’re working hard to let them know that, given the choice, men really are interested in attending weight loss groups. We are starting to see an improvement in gender balance in some referral schemes, but certainly more needs to be done.

Men’s health was a topic of discussion at Slimming World’s inaugural Obesity Policy Workshop, in March 2017, which was attended by health experts and politicians. Slimming World believes it must remain high on the public health agenda.

This is a new analysis of the data in Screening and brief intervention for obesity in primary care: a parallel, two-arm, randomised trial Aveyard, Paul et al. The Lancet , Volume 388 , Issue 10059 , 2492 - 2500This was a parallel, two arm, randomised trial, where 940 patients were offered referral if they had a Body Mass Index of at least 30kg/m² (or at least 25 if of Asian ethnicity). The vast majority of referrals in this study were to Slimming World. This latest analysis is yet to be published but has been released early by the University of Oxford to coincide with Men’s Health Week.

Slimming World currently have a special Men's Health Week offer for men - available now at http://www.slimmingworld.co.uk/landing/mens-health-week-2017/online-offer.aspx