The UK has been blighted by rising rates of childhood obesity which have grown exponentially over the last twenty years. When compared with levels in at the start of the millennium, these rates have grown. This worryingly upward trend has recently culminating in a bombshell revelation from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) who in October 2018 announced that the rate of obese 10-11 year olds had risen by a third in the period 2017-2018 compared to 2006 to 2007. Just last month the World Obesity Federation (WOF) announced a grim prediction that by 2030, the UK will have 1,309,702 obese childeren aged 5-19.
The effects of obesity on a child’s health are far reaching and incredibly destructive both mentally and physically given that they are still developing. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, musculoskeletal issues, and CVD are all physical risk factors that children are susceptible to developing. Public Health England has estimated that the cost of obesity sits around £6.1 billion per year. More interestingly, the NHS released details of a study in late 2018 that detailed strong evidence of a link between obesity and depression. The study found that obese subjects had a 45% increased chance of developing depression than those with a healthy BMI. When we marry up this research up with the predicted rate of UK child obesity from beyond 2019, it spells grave concern for the NHS which is already operating beyond capacity, especially in terms of mental health service funding.
Where Are We In 2019?
Limited Success Of Sugar Reduction Drive
The government’s sugar reduction program has been in full swing since 2016 with the mission of challenging food manufacturers to reduce the amount of sugar content in their products. Although there have been some positive outcomes, we are still very far from reaching the desired 20% by 2020. Across eight food groups only three (yoghurts, cereals and sweet spreads) have achieved the planned 5% reduction target in sugar and calories. This has led many to believe that the only way to reduce consumable sugar will be through a mandatory sugar tax.
Leeds lowers childhood obesity rate
In the spring of this year, it was reported that Leeds had bucked the trend by actually reducing it’s childhood obesity rate in its most deprived areas. Over a period of four years childhood obesity dropped from 11.5% to 10.5% putting Leeds well below the national average of the national year six obesity rate. Much of this success has been attributed to the work of a charity called “Henry” who developed an innovative early-years worker intervention program in deprived areas. They essentially intervened with support and resources on nutritional advice, routines, relationships and physical activity when it came to new parents. Knowing that parents will tend to be more receptive to advice in a child’s earlier years, this program shows that parents and deprived environments need support at the earliest years of a child’s life.
When it comes to childhood obesity two main risk factors have been identified in playing a part in influencing increased rates. The first of these is is deprivation, it is widely observed that higher areas of socio-economic deprivation produce higher rates of childhood obesity. Among many issues that stem from this is the lack of access to affordable healthy foods and places to exercise along with economic pressures where working parents rely on quick convenience foods to feed their families.
Parental influence and home factors also account for a child’s weight. If a child comes from a family who are also overweight and don’t encourage healthy eating or exercise, this will be passed down to the younger members of the family. Inter-family issues and conflict can also serve as a stressor which may encourage the use of food as a comfort mechanism.
Physical Activity: The New Frontline
Conclusively, what we are seeing is that the battle to reduce childhood obesity in the UK is fraught with a complex number of variables including family life, socioeconomic status and a non-compliant food industry. The one place where all of these variables can be controlled to a degree is within schooling hours. The average child aged 5-18 spends 190 days a year in school learning under supervision. This is the ideal opportunity to introduce children to the importance of eating healthily, exercising and more importantly indoctrinating them so that these good habits are carried forward in later life.
The way in which we do this has to be child-friendly. Using school as a supervised environment in which to lay on hard-edged physical activity routines will put children off the idea of physical activity and healthy eating. Rather, we must make it appealing by using enticing MUGA pitches, fun and vibrant playground surfacings which promote physical activity in a fun and engaging way. These cost-effective features can also be used by local councils in playgrounds and parks to which would allow children in deprived areas to benefit. This belt and braces approach would promote physical activity both in school and the environment. Although the issue of childhood obesity is rooted in a complex web of factors improving the quality of environment is a significant start.