Let me hit you with some shocking facts; according to a recent report by the National Childhood Measurement Programme, just over 20% of reception age children are overweight or obese. Even worse, this rises to just under 35% for Year 6 age children. Worried? We are too. Childhood obesity is creating sick children and even sicker adults. It’s increasing the number of children and adults with Type 2 Diabetes, high blood pressure and early cardiovascular disease, breathing problems like asthma, and heartbreakingly – causing social and psychological issues for our children such as bullying and low self-esteem.

The youngest child ever was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes last year, at just three years old. untitledWhen you keep in mind that Type 2 was only seen in children post 2000, that adds up to Diabetes claiming people at least 15 years younger than it used to, in the same length of time. Why? Because we are in a world where overeating and weight gain is now the norm.

The biggest killers in Britain are obesity related sicknesses, from cardiovascular disease to cancer – so the long and the short of it is, we are setting up our children to get ill and die early. Rather depressingly, obesity and its ill effects are also costing NHS England £5.1 billion per year. We are almost literally eating our money.

So what is the
government intending to do about it? Enter the new childhood obesity strategy, a policy “action plan” aimed at tackling the childhood obesity crisis. Unfortunately, the strategy has left mst health professionals feeling slightly underwhelmed.Firstly let’s be fair, there are some useful plans in there:

  • The all singing all dancing sugar tax on soft drinks will be implemented. The proceeds of the tax will be invested in school breakfast clubs and physical activity programmes, in part to encourage children to partake in 60 minutes of vigorous activity daily.
  • Physical Activity levels will be part of a new voluntary “Healthy Schools” Assessment carried out by OFSTED.
  • The Food Industry will be encouraged to implement a voluntary sugar reduction programme, cutting the added sugar in their products by 20%, as well as aiming to meet sugar targets for 100g of particular foods, and “cap” the number of calories in single portions.
  • Sale of unhealthy foods will be restricted and healthy foods will be made more available in public settings such as hospitals and leisure centres.
  • The government will recommit to the healthy start scheme, giving vouchers for fruits and vegetables, milk, and certain key supplements to low income families.
  • A campaign will be launched to increase awareness of the voluntary guidelines for food service and nutrition in early years settings such as nurseriesjamie-oliver-on-twitter-i-m-in-shock-the-long-awaited-childhood-obesity-strategy-from-theresa_may-s-new-government-is-far-from-robust-https-t-co-tezmjidofl

There are some good things here, but given the scope of this problem, does any of that l
ook like enough? Reducing sugar sounds like an excellent plan, but voluntary reduction? Excuse me if I don’t jump up and down for joy. The same with the aim to get children doing 60
minutes vigorous daily exercise. Of course exercise is fantastic for your child’s health, but, if there’s something all health professionals can agree on, it’s that you can’t outrun a poor diet.

One idea that seems genuinely helpful here is to make healthier food available for purchase in hospitals, leisure centres, and other public domains. Buying junk food from a leisure centre after a swim feels almost like government condoned snacking; we need to make healthy food the norm in our public spaces.

Perhaps though, much like dieting, the strategy can be defined by what’s not there rather than what is. Below are just some bolder suggestions of ways we could collectively tackle childhood obesity:

  • Unhealthy food should be removed from prominent positions in stores, such as the aisle ends and next to checkouts.
  • Supermarkets should end or significantly reduce promotional offers on unhealthy foods.
  • The Sugar tax should apply to foods, not just soft drinks.
  • Greater numbers of promotional offers should be made on fruits and vegetables.
  • Television adverts for junk foods should be restricted during prime time family shows as well as during children’s television.
  • Restaurants, cafes and takeaways should publish nutrition information on their menus.

imagesIf this documentary by Channel 4’s Dispatches can be believed, many of these ideas put forward by prominent health professionals were actually in the draft document of the report, but subsequently taken out. We are left asking – what happened?

When you look at what could have been in the report – the actual “strategy” is left looking a bit like too little too late. Let’s be clear, this is an extremely weak response to a looming public health crisis; as obese children become obese adults the healthcare bill will continue to rise, we are simply kicking the stone further down the road. A definitive lack of specific regulation combined with the emphasis on voluntary action is an extremely evasive standpoint. It seems the government has decided that sorting out childhood obesity is simply not its responsibility.

For now then we must ask what can we do ourselves, and h ow can we do it? Because really, if we can’t sort this out, our children won’t thank us.


Charlie Rose Howard, Dietetic Student

Charlie is a BSc Nutrition and Dietetics student at King’s College London. She’s interested in all things public health, child health, and evidence based. Tweet her @charlieroseRD2B


Foodtalk blog posts are written by a variety of health and care professionals in order to showcase different perspectives in the world of nutrition and health.