It’s National Childhood Obesity Week and MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition… Do it!) is raising awareness of the dangers of being overweight in childhood. MEND’s Paul Sacher explores possible solutions.
One in three children are overweight or obese in the UK. Obesity in childhood itself is associated with many health and psychosocial issues and unless these children are supported to become healthier – between 40% and 70% of them will grow up to be obese adults.
So what can we do about the problem? Many parents need more support to recognise if their child is over a healthy weight – and if so, how they can broach the subject, which is the first step in dealing with this serious health issue.
We recently surveyed over 1,000 parents on Netmums and found that more than a third are concerned about bringing up the topic of weight with their child in case it leads to an eating disorder.
Environmental factors contributing to childhood obesity
Living healthily in today’s obesogenic environment isn’t easy. High fat, high sugar foods and drinks are cheap and readily available. The lack of government regulation on food labelling means there is no consistency across food manufacturers and supermarkets, which makes it almost impossible to figure out what is in the products that parents are feeding their children.
Many parents are doing their best to try and buy healthy products but unfortunately are being fooled by misleading advertising and marketing. An example of this is fruit juice which many parents think is a healthy drink for their children. But fruit juice contains as much, if not more, sugar than many soft drinks and only one cup (200ml) per day counts towards a child’s five-a-day, yet parents are generally not aware of this.
In our survey, 72% of parents with an overweight or obese child said they found it difficult to help their child to stay healthy. Most attributed this to their child’s preference for foods high in fat and sugar.
The solution isn’t as simple as banning fatty foods or sugary drinks – we think the change must be one of lifestyle for kids and parents alike.
It’s about families getting into healthy habits together, ensuring exercise is a normal part of their lives e.g. by regularly walking or cycling to school and by encouraging active play. It’s about cooking from fresh and helping children get into the habit of enjoying healthy food as a family.
The government must invest now to save money later on
It’s worrying that only a very small proportion of overweight and obese children are getting the practical support they urgently need to reach and maintain a healthier weight.
We calculate that less than 5% of them have access to a child weight management programme like MEND, which is recommended by NICE as first line treatment for child obesity, so the government really needs to act to provide effective programmes. Money invested now will save the NHS billions in the future. And if nothing is done, child obesity will cost the NHS £50bn a year by 2050.
How do you think we should tackle childhood obesity and who is responsible – parents, food manufacturers and supermarkets, or the government?
Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from Paul Sacher – co-founder of MEND and a paediatric dietitian – all opinions expressed here are their own, not necessarily those of Which?