In the UK, almost a quarter of British children are overweight by the time they start primary school, with obesity reaching its highest peak among older children.
About 11.2% of 4 -5 years olds are obese (with a 40 to 70% chance they will become obese adults) and 12% of toddlers remain overweight. Children from poor families are disproportionality affected by obesity. Diet related ill health costs the NHS £5.8billion every year with childhood obesity related illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, heart attacks and asthma in England costing £51m per year. This is before we begin to consider the mental health illness that will emerge.
So why isn’t the obesity issue sorted? Here are my top four reasons:
1. Obesity is caused by us allowing children to become addicted to sugar by adding it to everything from soup to fruit juice.
2. Our economy depends on us advertising and selling these sugary goods and the immediate profit is more important than long term costs.
3. More children from poor families are affected and no one cares.
4. The Government approach does not weave, legislation, taxation, education and behaviour change into a helpful and robust strategy.
This may seem a bit harsh but for those of us working with small children, it’s a reasonable assumption. Sadly, we are rarely considered in the national debate but we spot the issues very early and can often create conditions for improvements called ironically enough, early intervention. Young children are very quickly affected by adult decisions.
Of course, there is no easy solution to tackling obesity. It requires a complete systems approach where each of the contributing factors can be addressed by the most effective means. We certainly need more than the Government’s super slim child obesity strategy. There needs to be a national coherent, connected and well communicated strategy shaped around:
· Physical Exercise
· Behaviour Change
In 2007, we used legislation to ban the advertising of high-fat, salt or sugar foods (HFSS) during children’s TV programmes and last July, the Government extended this ban to online advertising. Both were aimed at children including stopping cartoon characters and celebrities popular with children to advertise unhealthy options. Sadly, it has only been effective on a small proportion of the ads children see.
More recently, headlines about the proposed ban on sweets and confectionery from supermarket checkouts will only work if we also apply this to corner shops and, of course, the local Tesco Metro.
Whilst Action on Sugar’s robust recommendations, which include a calorie tax of 20% on confectionery, making nutritional labelling on menus and packaging mandatory and ban marketing of HFSS products are key – we also need a strong dose of education and behaviour change such as the Health Education Authority’s successful multi-level campaigns.
Furthermore, whilst it’s easy to blame the poor and say, “well why can’t they cook a cheap nutritious meal?”, it’s often cheaper to buy processed food which is bulky and tasty and packaged like it’s a healthy option. When I went to school we learned basic cooking, not food science. This meant we could make soup or Shepard’s Pie, not just pizza or fruit kebabs, which is often the consequence of a cooking policy introduced to schools with no funding for kitchens.
In nurseries and schools, we need chefs who understand the importance of the preparation, cooking and presentation of food. There is no qualification for chefs working with children which is why we have developed one which is now accredited by CACHE. It covers the ability to cook food as well as understanding child nutrition, portion sizes and ways to engage with children, families and staff to educate them about food.
We also need to get children more active to burn calories. Never has there been a greater need for play rangers in local parks, more clubs and a wider encouragement to access sport, dance and fun activities that are physical and preferable outdoors. We are partnering with Bikeworks to provide nurseries with high quality bikes but extending this into a loan scheme for parents where they can also borrow one.
In an article by Seb Coe in the Evening Standard (30th May 2018), he noted that the physical activity of the average child during their primary school is reduced by 50% by the time they leave. He talks about bikes and walking and asked the Government to reduce VAT on gym membership, bicycles and running shoes.
Every day, I walk into a nursery and see the children of whom one in four will become overweight and I wonder at our inability to stop this tide of obesity.
The Mayor of London has recently appointed Paul Lindley to lead the child obesity task force – perhaps Mrs May might partner up with London and shape a strategy together. We have no time to play politics so collaboration is our only future.