Tackling the nation’s obesity crisis
Chair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health Nutrition Committee, Dr Colin Michie explains why collective action must be taken to tackle obesity in children…
With nearly one in 5 secondary school age children and a quarter of adults obese, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health calls for prevention, early intervention – and collective action.
It’s certainly one of the biggest public health threats facing the UK, and was recently dubbed by new NHS England Chief Executive Simon Stevens as ‘the new smoking’. A quarter of adults and one in 5 school children are now obese, up from 15% just 20 years ago. It’s no surprise that diabetes and other obesity related conditions are on the up too. The result of this increase is costing the NHS – a service severely under strain – an estimated £5bn a year.
What’s most concerning is that these conditions are increasingly developing earlier in life. So what was once expected to occur in adulthood, now actually become apparent at a much younger age. In fact, it was announced last year that hospitals in England and Wales had seen a four-fold increase in the number of children being admitted with conditions linked to their weight.
Action must be taken, and it must be taken soon if we are to win the race against this ever increasing problem. Overweight or obese children are much more likely to become overweight or obese adults, so getting it right in childhood is essential if the UK is to shake off its title as the ‘fat man of Europe.’ This is by no means an easy task though – if it was, it would have been solved many years ago.
What’s needed is collective action from many groups of people including healthcare professionals, the government, parents, food manufacturers, supermarkets and advertisers. There are role models in the community such as pharmacists, school nurses and midwives who are advocates for healthy living by promoting healthy eating. By contrast, in Brussels, legislators work hard to regulate the sugar contents of toddler milks. The question is – what steps can be taken to make a real difference on a wider scale?
Food and politics
The RCPCH, as part of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges (AoMRC), made a series of recommendations as part of the Academy’s ‘Measuring up’ Report, which launched back in February 2013.
Many of these recommendations begin in the classroom – educating children early on what constitutes a healthy meal and teaching them how to cook at a younger age. There is also an emphasis on supporting parents to make healthier food choices. Policies we stand by today and policies still needing to be incorporated in all school syllabuses.
Alongside the Academy’s report, the call for improvement in schools accelerated from the classroom to the canteen, with initiatives launching such as ‘The School Food Plan,’ led by the Children’s Food Trust, and supported by a number of organisations including the RCPCH.
Over the last year, the number of children eating school dinners has also dropped. So whilst school meals have become healthier – thanks to campaigns like Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Foundation’ and the School Food Plan – it’s clear that more work needs to be done to make them more appealing for the children who eat them. Menus don’t necessarily have to drop burgers in favour of salads and couscous, but the ingredients used in these ‘attractive’ meals could be adapted so they are healthier and more nutritious.
But it’s not that simple. Families’ lives are busier than ever before so cooking from scratch is becoming a thing of the past. The price of food has also rocketed over the years making buying fresh food much more difficult for families living on lower incomes. The healthy option must be the easy option, and we can only do that with support from the government, food manufacturers and supermarkets.
That’s why, as part of the ‘Measuring up’ report, we ask all supermarkets to provide clear labelling on products and to ensure deals on fresh food are as prominent as those on confectionary.
We would recommend a one-year pilot of a 20% tax on sugary drinks. Despite further evidence confirming this measure would be beneficial, together with backing from the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, there remains reluctance to make this a reality. But bold strategies are required if there is serious intent to make an impact.
Food promotion – especially that of fast food – affects children’s food choices, parents’ purchase behaviour and ultimately consumption. This is why we want to see a ban on fast food advertising before the 9pm watershed and a restriction on new takeaway restaurants being established within short distance of schools and colleges.
A combination of measures need to be put in place to begin tackling obesity effectively, and at the heart of any overarching plan must be tackling the problem in pregnancy and childhood. If healthy eating and active lifestyles become a part of this country’s culture – and people whatever their income and whatever their background are supported to make that real – we’re much more likely to make inroads. As with all marathons, there will be challenges. But a collective effort with direct support from a range of organisations and individuals can improve the health for children and young people. This campaign demands greater collaboration in changing times. Truly, food for thought.
Dr Colin Michie
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health