Advertisement

Inside the obesity capital of Britain

wigan pie eating contest
Wigan has hosted the World Pie Eating Championships since 1992 - Charlotte Graham/CAG Photography Ltd

“If you want to write about Wigan, write about that guy over there – he’s the local crackhead and he just killed a pigeon,” says a teenager in the town centre near the Grand Arcade Shopping Centre.

A middle-aged man clutching a white bag looks up and grins, flapping his arms like a bird. “He just smacked it and put it in that bag. He says he is going to cook it and eat it for dinner.”

Fresh lean protein is not the norm in Wigan. The local delicacy is a pie barm – a meat-filled pastry served in a buttered bread roll.

When Gareth Hill, 41, was working as a joiner, he used to have a version of a “Wigan kebab”, as it is nicknamed, most days for breakfast.

ADVERTISEMENT

“When you’re lifting planks of wood and sawing you probably can afford to do that,” he says.

Hill eventually swapped his manual labour job for a more sedentary life as an apprenticeship coach. His diet, however, stayed the same.

“I just carried on eating the same even though I was working at home.”

Gareth Hill
Hill is now preparing to run the Greater Manchester Half Marathon - Roger Moody/Guzelian

The pounds piled on. Until a few months ago, Hill weighed just over 16st (102kg) and had a body mass index (BMI) of 32.

When a bout of Covid left Gareth gasping for breath, he knew something was wrong. He was driving home from work when he had a panic attack as he struggled to breathe.

“I managed to park up before I got on the motorway and I had to call an ambulance.”

Under NHS guidelines, Hill was obese – a state defined as having a BMI above 30.

This is not uncommon in Wigan: in fact, it is the obesity capital of Britain.

Nearly 40pc of the population fall into this category, a higher proportion than anywhere else in the UK and well above the national average of 26pc. More than 70pc of people in Wigan are defined as overweight, meaning they have a BMI of more than 25.

Wigan is emblematic of a national problem.

“There is an obesity epidemic in the UK now,” says Jane Pilkington, director of population health at NHS Greater Manchester. “It has been building up for at least 30 years. It is now a chronic problem.”

Across the UK, the average man has gained a stone since 1993 to weigh 13.4 stones today.

Meanwhile, the average woman has gone up roughly a dress size from 14 to 16 over the same period.

The UK has higher rates of adult obesity than Germany, France, Italy and Japan in the G7, and has seen faster growth in the prevalence of obesity since the turn of the century than all advanced economies bar Japan.

Junk food advertising, the prevalence of takeaways and the volume of processed foods available in supermarkets are all blamed for fuelling the crisis.

This collective weight gain is putting a strain on the nation’s health – and on public finances.

The annual cost to the economy has been estimated at up to £100bn a year and rising, according to a recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

Obesity increases demand on healthcare services, eating up NHS budgets. Sir Chris Whitty, Britain’s chief medical officer, highlighted in 2021 that the majority of knee replacements in advanced economies were related to weight.

Every five-unit increase in BMI increases the risk of knee osteoarthritis by a third because of the extra strain on joints, he pointed out.

It is not just through healthcare costs that obesity burdens Britain’s economy – it takes a major toll on the labour force too.
It is an issue that is at the heart of Britain’s worklessness crisis, with 2.8 million people economically inactive due to ill health.

Sophie Metcalfe at the Institute for Government says: “Economic inactivity due to long-term sickness has become a major concern among policymakers.

“Not all of that will have to do with obesity but it is certainly true that if you have a population with higher obesity, you’re more likely to have people who are long-term sick and not able to work as a result. And that feeds through to a higher benefits bill.”

Obesity affects people’s mobility and productivity and makes it harder for them to work.

With public finances already stretched to breaking point, the financial implications of this crisis have pushed it up the political agenda.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has pledged to boost children’s health by introducing a 9pm watershed on junk food advertising on TV.

In February, shadow health secretary Wes Streeting said a Labour government would “steamroll” food companies into promoting healthier food.

Last week Prime Minister Rishi Sunak committed to rolling out Ozempic and Wegovy weight-loss injections on the NHS.

Whether any of these policies will make a difference is an open question.

Obesity has been identified as a major problem by every government since the Major administration in 1992. Targets to reduce it have all been missed, with more than a dozen obesity strategies and key agencies created only to be later abolished.

Hill, who has lived in Leigh, Wigan, all his life, believes being overweight has become normalised.

“If I got my daughter to draw a picture of a typical 40-year-old man, he’d have a round belly. It’s kind of the acceptable thing,” he says.

“I never thought of myself as fat, and then when you see the scales and you see your BMI [it] says you’re obese.”

Gareth Hill
Gareth Hill has lost almost three stone since making some major lifestyle changes - Roger Moody/Guzelian

Pilkington says: “Our lives have become much more sedentary over the last three decades and we’ve got a much wider availability of cheap, unhealthy foods now.”

Inequality has also fuelled the problem, she adds. “We know rates are twice as high for obesity between deprived and non-deprived areas.”

Wigan is grappling with its own post-industrial scars from the collapse of the cotton industry in the 1980s.

Residents of Wigan have long had the nickname of “pie-eaters”. This is apparently because during the 1926 General Strike the Wigan miners went back to work first, and therefore had to “eat humble pie”.

But the town is also famous for making and eating pies. It has hosted the World Pie Eating Championships since 1992.

The health implications of the area’s obesity crisis are clear in the data. Male life expectancy in Wigan is 77 years old, according to official data, almost two years earlier than the national average. Heart failure is one of the town’s biggest killers.

Early deaths from cancer are also well above the national average, according to Public Health England.

Tackling obesity is a high priority for public services. Wigan Council has an extensive number of schemes to help people lose weight, including Let’s Get Movin’, a programme of exercise and nutrition classes for families.

NHS Greater Manchester launched a “fakeaways” campaign last December, putting leaflets through people’s doors that looked like takeaway menus. It is also doing a children’s healthy weight consultation.

Nicola Kiggin works as a consultant at Slimming World, running classes at Hindley Independent Methodist Church on the outskirts of Wigan.

Most people who join lose weight within the first week, says Kiggin. One member lost 16lbs in seven days.

“There is no magic potion or pills, it is just normal food, but changing the way we’re cooking and shopping,” says Kiggin.
She takes each person through a food plan, explaining how unhealthy certain everyday foods can be. Many people are not aware of how unhealthy things such as shop-bought sauces can be, for example.

“It’s not anything special that we’re doing, it’s just taking it back to basics.”

In November, Hill stopped eating after dinner and before midday, and started lifting weights: “I just didn’t want to be that person anymore.”

He lost three stone in three months and is now fundraising to run the Greater Manchester Half Marathon for charity.

“I feel like I’ve overcome it and I’m able to keep away from that type of food. It’s not just a diet for me, I’m not going to put the weight back on. I’ve always felt like it was me versus me, and I’ve kind of won.”