Why Putting Britain On A Diet Is Failing Our Children

Why Putting Britain On A Diet Is Failing Our Children
FatCamera via Getty Images

According to the new campaign by Public Health England, Britain, especially children, need to go on a diet.

A calorie controlled diet.

It’s part of a campaign to tackle obesity by reducing calorie consumption by 20%, nationwide, by 2024.

As a mum of two young children and as someone whose business it is to encourage healthy lifestyle choices it made my ears prick up.

Yes, there is an obesity epidemic and yes, I am keenly concerned for the future health of our children and whilst I’m completely in agreement with the need to reduce the amounts of processed foods in diets in general, promoting a calorie counting message largely focused on children is, in my opinion, failing to address the heart of the obesity problem:

  • That we are failing to promote adequate incentive or opportunity for our children to be active;
  • That we are placing the responsibility of calorie reduction with food producers rather than individuals (or if we’re targeting children here, parents and teachers); and
  • That quick fixes, ready meals and processed foods have become the norm rather than a treat, replacing good old fashioned cooking from scratch, at home.

Is it not time to take ownership and responsibility for our children who we are letting down through over feeding, under moving and under nourishing?

When it comes to childhood obesity, and probably adult obesity too, I wear two hats. My first as a working mother and wife. My second as fitness business owner and keenly active person.

I make it my business to encourage others to become more active. I run classes and workshops nurturing beginners or fitness phobics to move more. I educate on the reasons for being more active including reducing your risk of lifestyle cancers, heart disease and yes, obesity. I write. I speak. I consult. I talk to parents and grandparents, schools and businesses, district and county council. I am persistent and doggedly determined to make a little splash in the tide of inactivity and casual degrading of those of us who like to be active.

‘Oh you’re so boring doing your exercise.’

‘She’s a fitness fanatic.’

So when I read about a campaign from a government health body which completely fails to acknowledge the importance of activity in tackling obesity and appears to remove responsibility from individuals it makes me want to bang my head against a wall.

Instead of telling families and children what not to eat and how to restrict calories, how about recommending they move more?

Not moving in order to burn calories (although given the need to find a deficit of calories - physical activity is a pretty good place to start) but moving in order to find a love of movement and to normalise physical activity just as we’ve normalised pizza and cake on school dinner menus.

But even better than that, how about incentivising or giving schools the means to deliver better and more frequent sports and activity in school - at all levels - rather than making supermarket burgers less calorific?

I have a son in year two at school. He is scheduled to have two hours of P.E. per week but very often, due to either curriculum, space, weather or ‘other’ constraints that’s squeezed to one. These are children who’s bones are developing and life habits are being formed. If a seven-year-old accepts that if we are too busy with academic work we’ll have to skip P.E. how will that translate twenty years later?

In recent years we’ve lost P.E. and sports co-ordinators in schools. Primary schools are lucky if they have a dedicated P.E. teacher. Many extra curricular sports clubs are run by staff or teaching assistants. In the majority of schools it is not prioritised. We need to make movement skills and fitness education as important as reading and writing. Not because it will help them get a job but because it will help them live with increased life quality, reduced risk of disease and to grow up being a generation for whom sports and movement is an essential part of life rather than an extreme for the few ‘fitness fanatics.’

Whilst I fully appreciate the fact that children are, in many cases over eating (or there wouldn’t be an obesity epidemic) they are also under-moving.

And whilst we’re at it, let’s not give up on the ‘healthy eating at home’ messages.

Why aren’t people cooking? Is there a knowledge gap? I see enough people in my classes who are afraid of cooking to believe that there are still steps we could be taking to help bring home cooking back to more homes.

Who is it who is responsible for the health and wellbeing of the child? When did fat or obesity become such a politicised word that we had to shirk around it and instead blame food companies for making their food too calorific?

I don’t have the answers. But I don’t believe the answer to obesity lies in a 400-600-600 calorie pattern or a 200 calorie reduction. It’s like putting a proverbial band aid on an arterial wound and hoping it might stem the flow.

Obesity requires a multi-layered approach, not an appeasement or pretence that we’re doing something.

What we need is investment in education. Food. Cooking. Physical activity and movement.

We need to take ownership for our health rather than hoping the NHS will mop up the mess and pleading ignorance or busy-ness.

We need to work harder to find sports and movement that enable all children to flourish and remain engaged in activity.

Let’s look to countries who are lower down the obesity continuum. What are they doing well? Letting kids learn outside. Making activity a big part of education rather than an add on.

We need to accept responsibility for excess fat. Whoever it belongs to.

This means learning to cook. This means learning about nutrition. This means finding ways of cooking nutritious meals at home even when you have a full time job. This means moving more as families, as communities and not just leaving it up to gyms, leisure centres and sports clubs but getting out and encouraging others to get out.

And we need to keep challenging policy makers who pretend they have answers or strategies to manage obesity.