Despite nearly a third of children and young people aged 2-15 being overweight or obese; the long awaited Childhood Obesity strategy is being declared as weak and is more notable for what it doesn't include, rather than what it does. In these times of increasing demand on health services, it's difficult to understand why the Government wouldn't want to future proof the health of the nation by reducing one of the key causes of many health problems in adults e.g. cancers, diabetes, mental illness.
Beyond the well documented physical impact of obesity, there is a crucial mental health element as well, which is often overlooked. There is evidence that suggests there is an association between obesity and poor mental health, especially in teenagers. Children and young people with depression or anxiety often comfort eat or as a way to distract themselves from negative emotions. So if you are comfort eating as a way of managing negative feelings, coupled with not being able to get out and be active, it won't take long before you would put on weight. Also, some medications, such as antipsychotics may result in weight gain. So any young person with early onset psychosis for instance, may be at risk of weight gain, regardless of their diet. The strategy doesn't really cover this at all, other than playing lip service to the fact that people who are obese may also be living with depression.
If you become overweight or obese, you then may have low self-esteem and self-image issues. If you are picked on or bullied because of your weight, the combination of these factors is very likely to impact on your mental health. It is essential that Government and local commissioners and all those working with children and young people see the links between childhood obesity and mental health and there is a joined up approach to tackling them.
There is good work going on in many areas to educate both children and families about the importance of good diet. For instance, some schools have a veg plot and are encouraging children to grow fruit and vegetables, which is positive on many levels and can help promote wellbeing as well as the more obvious outcomes. There is other good work, such as the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families' SmartGym which is using exercise as a way to address mental health issues within schools. There is also good work going on to support the physical health, including impact of obesity on young people with psychosis.
The failure to seize on this major public health and public mental health issue will be detrimental to children and young people's health, both now and in the future. So we join the growing voice of concern around childhood obesity, but call for a wider focus which addresses both the physical and mental health needs of children and young people.