This paper reviews previous cost studies of overweight and obesity in the UK. It proposes a method for estimating the economic and health costs of overweight and obesity in the UK which could also be used in other countries. Costs of obesity studies were identified via a systematic search of electronic databases. Information from the WHO Burden of Disease Project was used to calculate the mortality and morbidity cost of overweight and obesity. Population attributable fractions for diseases attributable to overweight and obesity were applied to National Health Service (NHS) cost data to estimate direct financial costs. We estimate the direct cost of overweight and obesity to the NHS at pound 3.2 billion. Other estimates of the cost of obesity range between pound 480 million in 1998 and pound 1.1 billion in 2004 [Correction added after online publication 11 June 2007: 'of the cost of obesity' added after 'Other estimates']. There is wide variation in methods and estimates for the cost of overweight and obesity to the health systems of developed countries. The method presented here could be used to calculate the costs of overweight and obesity in other countries. Public health initiatives are required to address the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity and reduce associated healthcare costs.