Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health challenges of our generation but it is not on everyone’s agenda despite the staggering statistics which continue to get worse
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.
In fact, some cannot sit and cross their legs because they are overweight. To those naysayers who proclaim it’s not a big issue here or across the world, as CEO of the London Early Years Foundation, I see those children regularly. Children are the litmus paper of society’s problems and this is easy to forget by those who don’t come into contact with them.
The impact for the children, their health and their futures is overwhelming and the cost to the NHS is soaring. This is predicted to reach £9.7 billion by 2050, with wider costs to society estimated to reach £49.9 billion per year.
Surely this isn’t acceptable?
According to our health colleagues, the fundamental cause of obesity and being overweight is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. Problems related to obesity and physical inactivity tend to start in childhood and disproportionately affects disadvantaged socio-economic groups. Put it like that, it appears a clear-cut issue and therefore we should be able to provide an equally logical response.
The truth is, it’s not so simple as we don’t know what actually works. This is not helped by the many debates about the validity of the recommended data and measures. The Obesity Forum commented that in its 17-year history there has been a succession of government obesity strategies which have all petered out or been watered down.
Dealing with such a huge problem is overwhelming and there are some common responses; small localised action, ignoring the problem and fancy top-down strategy with no buy-in from the staff, public or inertia. This is reflected across the obesity landscape. There have been many projects, some of which have made noticeable differences, but generally, have not replicated well on a small scale.
For example, there are many cooking projects to educate the public through adequate information but much more is required. Public Health England’s recent Change for Life campaign to reduce sugar intake has created impact but the fact remains that many children are still eating an excess of eight sugar cubes a day.
As a nursery provider, we have increased our training on nutrition across the organisation, centralised our menus which are now double checked by a nutritionist, paid more attention to the contents of teas and snacks, increased availability of drinking water and provide better information for parents. This is our attempt to do something which we know is not enough but may help save one starfish trapped on the beach.
Sustaining change and replicating it remains a challenge and it won’t improve unless the wider environment is supportive, willing and engaged in a collaborative response. We will continue to see pilots, localised strategies and funded projects which may dent the issue locally if we are not collecting and collating responses both quantitively and qualitatively and share what we learned centrally.
If we are to see any significant progress and a reduction in the burdening cost to the NHS, now is the time for a more robust, coherent, well communicated national plan shaped around taxation, legislation, education, physical exercise and behavioural change based on evidence of success.
MBE and CEO
London Early Years Foundation.