Tackling childhood obesity in the UK

With the highest rate of obesity in western Europe, the UK must take action to promote health and support the wellbeing of the population.

Rising obesity rates – particularly in childhood – are a significant threat to the future health of the population, not to mention the cost of healthcare.

The UK is the most obese country in western Europe, and the 11th most obese in the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Health at a Glance report shows that, in 2015, 26.9% of the UK population were obese – a 92% increase since the 1990s. Obesity is one of the main drivers behind cancer, heart attacks, stroke and diabetes. Rising obesity rates – particularly in childhood – are a significant threat to the future health of the population, not to mention the cost of healthcare. Politicians are making efforts to tackle the obesity crisis. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan published his draft London Food Strategy in May 2018. It promises more radical change than its national equivalent, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Childhood Obesity action plan.

The London Food Strategy

The draft London Food Strategy outlines the Mayor’s ambitious vision for good food in the capital. Developed in partnership with the London Food Board, the strategy outlines actions under six priority areas:

  • Good food at home – and reducing food insecurity
  • Good food shopping and eating out – a healthier environment
  • Good food in public institutions and community settings – better food procurement
  • Good food for maternity, early years, education and health – supporting healthier habits
  • Good food growing, community gardens and urban farming – increasing sustainable food growing
  • Good food for the environment – making the food system work better.

Obese and overweight children and adolescents are more likely to die young and experience poor health in the form of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, asthma and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Childhood obesity in numbers

The numbers are shocking, with more than 1 in 5 children in reception (aged 4–5) and more than 1 in 3 children in year 6 (aged 10–11) measured as obese or overweight in 2015/16. The same study found that children from deprived areas were twice as likely to be obese than those in the least deprived areas, with Black or Black-British children more likely to be obese or overweight than any other ethnicity.

Nearly half of parents of obese children and 80% of parents of overweight children thought their child was a healthy weight. Studies have shown that parents – particularly mothers – do not classify their children as overweight according to commonly used clinical criteria. This highlights huge health literacy gaps in the general population.

Making positive change

It seems that the combination of high-calorie foods being heavily promoted via almost every form of media, and a low awareness of what ‘healthy weight’ actually means, is dangerous for the health of children. This is a major concern to both present and future society, as obese and overweight children and adolescents are more likely to die young and experience poor health in the form of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, asthma and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Putting profits from big business ahead of the long-term health of children is both unethical and economically short-sighted. Thankfully, this bold, positive move from the Mayor of London has forced the Prime Minister to rethink the Childhood Obesity plan. She is now expected to revive some of the proposals that were previously rejected into a new strategy, likely to be released shortly. This strategy could include restrictions on ‘by one, get one free’ deals on unhealthy products and a 9pm watershed on advertising for foods high in sugar, salt or fat.

More needs to be done

The UK cannot expect a slimmer population in 10 or 20 years unless it develops the infrastructure to protect young people from food and drink industry marketing, and to support them in making the best health decisions. Policymakers need to look at all factors that drive obesity in order to develop effective, multifactorial policy that nurtures health and empowers people.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.