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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Unevenly distributed: a systematic review of the health literature about socioeconomic inequalities in adult obesity in the United Kingdom

Abdulrahman M El-Sayed123*, Peter Scarborough1 and Sandro Galea2

Author Affiliations

1 British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group, Department of Public Health, University of Oxford, Richards Building Old Road Campus Headington, Oxford, UK OX3 7LF

2 Department of Epidemiology, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

3 College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, New York, NY, USA

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:18  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-18

Published: 9 January 2012



There is a growing literature documenting socioeconomic inequalities in obesity risk among adults in the UK, with poorer groups suffering higher risk.


In this systematic review, we summarize and appraise the extant peer-reviewed literature about socioeconomic inequalities in adult obesity risk in the UK published between 1980 and 2010. Only studies featuring empirical assessments of relations between socioeconomic indicators and measures of obesity among adults in the UK were included.


A total of 35 articles met inclusion criteria, and were reviewed here.


Socioeconomic indicators of low socioeconomic position (SEP), including occupational social class of the head-of-household at birth and during childhood, earlier adulthood occupational social class, contemporaneous occupational social class, educational attainment, and area-level deprivation were generally inversely associated with adult obesity risk in the UK. Measures of SEP were more predictive of obesity among women than among men. We outline important methodological limitations to the literature and recommend avenues for future research.

Adiposity; Overweight; Socioeconomic position; Socioeconomic status; Social class; Education; Income; Disparities; Deprivation; England; Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland