THE BLOG

We're Giving Our Children a Head Start in the Race Towards Illness and Premature Death

21/07/2016 15:20 | Updated 21 July 2016
Neil Hall / Reuters

Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century. In Leeds, where I work as a GP, one in 10 children in reception class, so those about four and five years old, are already obese. Alarmingly this rises to one in every five children by the time they reach year six, when they are ten or eleven, and sadly the situation is a lot worse in many other parts of the country where a third of children leave primary school overweight.

Overweight children become overweight adults and as a result are far more likely to develop conditions such as diabetes and heart disease at a younger age than we've seen in previous generations. It's almost as if we're giving these children a head start in the race towards illness and even premature death, and they are crossing the finish line a lot quicker than their parents or grandparents would have done.

Diabetes is a passport to many other serious illnesses and outcomes such as kidney and heart disease, blindness and even limb amputation. It's costing the NHS a massive £14 billion a year to treat, that's 10% of the whole NHS budget or £1.5 million an hour. The number of people with diabetes rises year on year and is set to reach 4 million by 2025. We must give our children the right start in life so they can avoid conditions like this in later life.

The reality is that children are getting fatter because they live in a society that encourages weight gain and obesity. Poor diet has become a feature of our children's lives, with junk food more readily available, and food manufacturers bombarding children with their marketing every day for food and drinks that are extremely bad for their health.

As a dad, I know how difficult it is when your children won't stop nagging for the colourful sweet packet that's caught their eye at the supermarket checkout, or the chocolate and crisps that they 'really really want' even though they weren't hungry at dinner time. Our children's choice of what they eat is influenced everywhere they turn.

Addressing the commercial influences that have such a strong impact on diet is key - ranging from the way unhealthy food and drinks are promoted, to the industry influence on the development of food and nutrition policies. Beyond regulation, schools must be supported in creating a healthy food environment and the nutritional content of processed foods must be improved.

GPs are on the front line and see the impact of this crisis every day. We see babies and young children who are overweight and already suffering the consequences. They may be struggling to keep up with other children, they develop more infections and can be subjected to bullying which impacts on their psychological wellbeing and development.

In the World Health Organisation's recent report "Ending Childhood Obesity" it highlights that there is no single intervention that can halt the rise in the growing obesity epidemic but we need to focus on every stage of a child's life, from pre-conception through pregnancy and infancy right in to adolescence. It requires a whole government approach, something the British Medical Association has long been advocating. The recent acceptance by the government of the need for a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks after years of pressure from the BMA and other campaigning groups is a huge step forward, but just one piece of the jigsaw of actions that need to be taken.

For some time, the government has been working on a solution. Its child obesity strategy was due to be published before Christmas, was then delayed until the New Year and then until after the European Referendum. A leaked draft of the document now suggests that ministers pledges of a 'clampdown' to help protect our children, has been watered down, resulting in a weak and disappointing strategy, after lobbying from the food industry - those making the unhealthy food that can harm our children.

With local councils in England warning this week that government cuts to public health funding could hamper their efforts to tackle obesity, ministers must act quickly, stand up to the food industry, and put our children first.

The BMA and the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of over 30 charities, medical royal colleges and campaigning organisations, are calling for a comprehensive and bold childhood obesity strategy, which includes ambitious targets, backed by regulation, for food companies to reduce sugar, saturated fat and salt from our food, restrictions on junk food marketing to prevent manufacturers targeting children, and the implementation of a sugar tax on soft drinks.

There is a need for a far greater effort from us all, to really turn things around and make the difference that our children deserve.

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