Obesity and ill-health in Weymouth and Portland are being fuelled by the borough's high number of fast-food outlets, experts have warned.

New figures show that Weymouth and Portland has the highest density of fast-food outlets in the South-West - at nearly 130 per 100,000 residents, or around 85 outlets in total across the borough.

The figures, released by Public Health England, are part of the organisation's drive to help local authorities create healthier food environments for their populations.

PHE noted the strong correlation between deprivation and the preponderance of fast food, and urged Weymouth and Portland Borough Council to look at creating 'healthier zones', with a limit on new outlets in the vicinity of schools and other places where children gather.

The borough council is currently preparing to undertake a public consultation on the introduction of such zones within Weymouth and Portland. The policy, if agreed, would ban new hot-food takeaways within 'easy walking distance' of schools.

Such measures have already been introduced by local authorities in Bristol, Plymouth and Torbay, and borough councillor Dr. Jon Orrell backed calls for exclusion zones to be introduced in Weymouth and Portland - as well as for healthy food to be more readily available within schools.

Dorset Echo:

HEALTH CONCERNS: Cllr Orrell has added his voice to calls for a fast-food 'exclusion zone' around schools

"We have a particular, and growing, problem with obesity in the borough," Cllr Orrell said, adding that health issues such as heart disease, arthritis and type-2 diabetes could all result from obesity. "It would be much better if people didn't succumb to these illnesses, which can be warded off with a healthy, balanced diet."

In January, the Echo reported that Weymouth and Portland had the highest prevalence of childhood obesity in Dorset - affecting nearly one in five Year 6 pupils - while in May, news emerged that obesity-related hospital admissions were increasing across the county at a higher rate than in the country at large.

Councillor Kate Wheller said the issue was a complicated one, as the borough's fast-food figures were skewed by the many small businesses offering convenient food options to visitors.

"We are a tourist town, one of the biggest seaside resorts," Cllr Wheller stressed. "If you were to count the McDonald's, KFCs, pizza, then we wouldn't have any more than anywhere else.

"If you're comparing [fast-food outlet numbers] with a little market town, then yes we have more. But we don't have more than Blackpool. We don't have more than Brighton."

She added that while she wanted to see borough residents eat more healthily, the council couldn't force the matter. "Obesity is absolutely a huge issue here," she said. "But we're not a police state. You can't dictate what people should eat."

McDonald's franchise holder and Weymouth Business Improvement District (BID) board member Chris Truscott pointed to the community role played by his and other businesses.

"We're really engaged in the community, and the BID is a chance to do that collectively," he said, adding that McDonald's had won plaudits for introducing lower-calorie meals.

"In these tough times, McDonald's offers the chance for an everyday treat," he said, noting that his outlet on St Mary's Street was preparing to introduce table service to create 'more of a dining experience'.

BID chief Claudia Moore meanwhile pointed to the need to cater to the town's yearly millions of visitors.

"We do need to provide for tourists and visitors who are looking for traditional seaside fare or convenience food," Ms Moore said. "However, I am aware that those restaurants and take-aways also cater for people wanting a lighter or healthier meal, and there are many more options than there used to be."