Childhood ob*sity: what is the government doing?

By Nutritank Writing Team

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This article is written by Louise Bennion ANutr. Louise is a Registered Associate Nutritionist currently working in the NHS with a background in obesity and weight management. To follow Louise head over to her Instagram page @Loutritionist

Millions of households are experiencing food insecurity and children are being continually bombarded with unhealthy advertising. The government vowed to introduce a range of measures to tackle ob*sity in England. The current social cost of obesity in the UK is approximately £58billion per year.

As a Nutritionist working in weight management, I am becoming increasingly concerned about the lack of action taken by the UK government to address childhood ob*sity. This delay in changing policy will almost certainly have a detrimental impact upon children’s health in the long-term. It’s a harsh reality that in recent years unhealthy diets amongst children have become somewhat normal.  In England, two in five children are leaving primary school overweight and are subsequently at higher risk of chronic illnesses, mental health problems and reduced lifespan. Children living with ob*sity are at greater risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and other long-term conditions that can last into adulthood including some cancers.

Policy

Despite the rigorous campaigning, more needs to be done to encourage healthier food choices for all. Previously discussed pledges have been shelved until October 2025. These include the restriction of curbing televised junk food advertising before 9pm, restrict online junk food ads and limit volume offers like buy-one-get-one-free (BOGOF) promotions. Although, in more promising news, now one fifth of all London boroughs are taking action on reducing unhealthy food and drink advertising across their communities. For example, Newham are the latest council to bring in a Healthier Food Advertising Policy, after the Mayor of London first brought in the policy across the Transport for London (TfL) network in 2019 with support from Sustain. This could be life changing in terms of treating and preventing childhood ob*sity.

In February, the House of Lords Committee on Food, Diet and Obesity published a call for written evidence for its inquiry into the role of foods, such as ultra-processed foods (UPFs) including those high in fat, salt and sugar. This report will assess how shifts in behaviours and food/health trends have impacted obesity, how government policies have influenced these shifts, and the role of the industry and the wider public in the public health landscape. This enquiry is especially important as we are in an election year. These findings will be used to inform future food policies and government decisions in relation to ob*sity.

What does the NHS offer?

Current NHS treatment for children living with ob*sity typically involves generic guidance for making improvements to diet and increasing physical activity through behaviour change strategies. The GP should be able to provide recommended daily calorie limit based on the child’s age and height, and they may also be able to refer you to your local family healthy lifestyle programme. A referral may be made to a specialist if a child develops an ob*sity-related complication, or there’s thought to be an underlying medical condition causing the ob*sity.

Food industry

One of the first steps in alleviating childhood ob*sity is changing our food environment. Healthier foods must be made more available and affordable to ensure nutrition security for all. This can be done via the extension of current campaigns like Healthy Start and Fruit and Veg Prescription, a pilot launched by the Alexandra Rose Charity to help tackle health inequality and food poverty. All school children should be provided with healthy food too. This will help to embed healthy eating habits, making it easier for children to maintain these habits in adulthood for positive health outcomes. A preventative approach is key to reducing cases of ob*sity and risk of unhealthy weight gain and the development of the condition.

Food manufacturers need to take action in providing more nutritionally balanced products for families and children. To support this, there needs to be a priority to make food marketing campaigns to make healthier foods more appealing.

Education in schools

This needs to be available in schools by increasing the number of timetabled sessions for Food Technology lessons to cover theory and practical learning as well as School Food matters’ work and Nutritank’s Nutrition4Youngsters initiative. School Food Matters provides fully funded food education programmes to schools to teach children about nutrition and increase their access to sustainable food during their time at school. Nutrition4Youngsters (N4Y) teaches primary school children knowledge of nutrition, food labelling and the gut microbiome. These two-hour teaching sessions delivered are in-person by Nutritank medical students as trained N4Y volunteers.

Ongoing campaigns

There has been an influx of campaigns for the accessibility of healthier food for young people over the last two decades. Bite Back is a youth activist movement challenging a food system that’s been set up to fool us all. Their latest campaign, ‘Fuel us, don’t fool us’ is targeting the big players within the food and drink industry selling unhealthy products. BiteBack are urging these companies to do better by selling healthier food options and less junk food as well as banishing the sinister marketing ploys that target children with unhealthy products. Also, in support of BiteBack, Jamie Oliver has been campaigning for a healthier food system for nearly 20years and has completely transformed school meals in the UK for the better.

Former government food tsar and National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby and TV doctor Dr Chris Van Tullekan have called for a 24-hour total ban on advertising of UPFs and high fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS) foods, in his most radical attack yet on the food industry. The pair shared their concerns regarding the way that food companies are currently operating in terms of producing and promoting unhealthy foods. These foods are addictive, but don’t satisfy our hunger properly or nourish us. So, we are now in an ob*sity epidemic with normalised unhealthy diets. Henry Dimbleby has called for ministers to roll out smoking-style restrictions on junk food and to avoid putting millions of overweight people onto weight-loss drugs. It’s imperative what we consider the longevity of any public health intervention rather than trying to throw a quick fix at the problem which will inevitably bring us back to square one.

 What services are out there specifically for young people and families?

A major shift across the food system is required. Firstly, healthier foods must be made more affordable to ensure nutrition security for all. This can be done via the extension of current campaigns like Healthy Start and Fruit and Veg Prescription, a pilot launched by the Alexandra Rose Charity to help tackle health inequality and food poverty. All school children should be provided with healthy food too. In addition to this, the food industry needs to take responsibility in producing healthier foods and the limiting the promotion of unhealthy foods including perceived value for money deals on UPFs and HFSS items needs to be restricted.

Henry is a service with locations dotted across the UK supporting families to make positive lifestyle changes, creating healthier and happier home environments, and building healthier communities. The Henry approach adopts a unique and highly effective way of working with parents which supports them to change family lifestyle habits and behaviours and provide a healthy start in life for their children. We need more services like Henry made available and accessible for all.

In summary, ob*sity is a complex issue, and the evidence shows that a multi-faceted approach is required to re-shape the food environment, educate children and families. In turn, this will make it easier for children to make more balanced, healthier diet and lifestyle choices which can be carried through into later life. Over time, this can prevent and treat ob*sity in the UK as well as associated health problems without relying on food taxes or restrictions on unhealthy food and drink advertising alone.

Do you think the UK government is going enough to treat childhood ob*sity? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Sources

https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/698/food-diet-and-obesity-committee/news/199952/call-for-evidence-launched-on-the-links-between-food-diet-and-obesity/#:~:text=The%20House%20of%20Lords%20Committee,healthy%20diet%20and%20tackling%20obesity.

https://www.parliament.uk/business/lords/media-centre/house-of-lords-media-notices/2024/february-20242/henry-dimbleby-and-dr-chris-van-tulleken-to-give-evidence-to-lords-food-diet-and-obesity-committee/

https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/health/henry-dimbleby-calls-for-total-ad-ban-on-upf-and-hfss-food/688563.article

https://www.foodmanufacture.co.uk/Article/2024/02/22/Do-we-need-new-rules-for-ultra-processed-food

https://healthmedia.blog.gov.uk/2023/06/07/government-plans-to-tackle-obesity-in-england/

https://www.biteback2030.com

https://www.henry.org.uk/ouroffer/childobesity

https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/communities-and-social-justice/london-food-strategy#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20Mayor’s%20key,tackle%20child%20obesity%20in%20London.

https://www.london.gov.uk/programmes-strategies/communities-and-social-justice/london-food-strategy#:~:text=One%20of%20the%20Mayor’s%20key,tackle%20child%20obesity%20in%20London.

https://www.alexandrarose.org.uk/

https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/treatment/

https://www.jamieoliver.com/campaigns/

https://www.schoolfoodmatters.org/

https://www.frontier-economics.com/uk/en/news-and-insights/articles/article-i9130-the-annual-social-cost-of-obesity-in-the-uk/

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