The UK is in the grip of an obesity epidemic and young people
are increasingly the victims. Over the past 20 years obesity levels
have nearly tripled and today 9 per cent of pre-school children and
17 per cent of 15 year olds are clinically obese. Children are
growing up in a society where half of women and two-thirds of men
are overweight or obese.
The cause of overweight and obesity is simple: an imbalance between
the number of calories consumed compared with calories expended.
How to tackle the problem is far from simple and one that has no
There is no shortage of villains in this piece – dwindling activity
levels, the relentless advertising of high-fat, high-sugar
processed food to children, and the wall-to-wall availability of
fast food are all said to contribute to the problem.
The paradox is that as young people are becoming fatter, the
pressure on them to conform to unrealistic ultra-thin body shapes
has never been greater with one survey finding that 90 per cent of
11 to 14-year-old girls were unhappy with their body shape.
“Obesity is often referred to as a time-bomb – well I have to tell
you that it has gone off,” says Ian Campbell, chairperson of the
National Obesity Forum. “We are seeing type two diabetes in obese
children, and two-thirds of obese adolescents have high blood
pressure, increased cholesterol and impaired sugar tolerance which
are increased risk markers for heart disease and diabetes,” he
Campbell blames the “food revolution” of the past 20 years.
“Calories have become cheap and high in fat and sugar,” he says.
However, he acknowledges that alternatives are difficult for many
disadvantaged families. “If you live in a ‘food desert’ area where
public transport is poor and you can’t afford a car then your
shopping options are very limited,” he says.
Young people’s increasing inactivity is equally worrying. “Kids
spend upwards of 16 hours per week indoors and this must change,”
Campbell says. Parents worrying about “stranger-danger” and traffic
keep young people at home, but other factors play a part. “One of
the most common reasons young people cite for not playing outside
is complaints from neighbours,” Campbell says.
While obese youngsters’ health problems are well documented, the
implications for their emotional health are equally severe, and
they have a tough time with bullying, low self-esteem, isolation,
Jenny Walker is team leader of one of the few projects in the
country that is helping obese young people. The Watch It scheme in
Leeds is a pilot project running clinics for seriously overweight
children and teenagers in disadvantaged areas in the south and west
of the city, run by a multidisciplinary team of paediatricians,
dietitians, child and adolescent mental health workers, and
The project uses the Healthy Education Lifestyle Programme
developed by Dr Deborah Christie, a clinical psychologist at
University College London, and gives advice on healthy eating,
exercise and how to change habits. The clinics run from 3pm to 6pm
so young people can drop in on their way home from school.
“We try to get parents or carers to buy into the service too,”
Walker says. “It’s important for them to understand what we are
trying to do and to help the young person change their eating
patterns and behaviour.”
The emphasis is on stabilising their weight and helping them to
feel better about themselves. “We don’t deal in diet sheets,” says
Walker. “Most of these children are desperately unhappy – they are
bullied, socially excluded with virtually no self-esteem. Until you
start to work with them on these issues you can’t move on to
tackling the physical side of the problem.”
Some of the clinics are run from leisure centres and there is a
strong emphasis on physical activity. Walker says: “It’s crucial
that we help them increase their activity levels. Most do no
exercise whatsoever and are exempt from games because they find it
so difficult. We don’t expect children to lose weight – we hope
they will stop gaining it. The biggest thing is that they just feel
better about themselves and are more confident.”
Watch It has had encouraging results, and there has been an overall
modest decline in the young people’s weight. But there are very few
projects like this.
Deborah Christie, who created the Help programme, says nobody holds
a magic wand when it comes to treating obesity. “Diets don’t work –
they introduce restraint and restraint causes a diet/binge eating
cycle that makes kids very unhappy. I think this is more unhealthy
than being overweight,” she says. “It’s very na‹ve of us to
think that we can come up with a simple model that will eradicate
What does work, she says, is the model Watch It uses, and it is
this sort of service she would like to see rolled out across the
UK. Crucially, she says, we must invest in early intervention. “If
I see a child with an increased body mass index at the age of nine,
there is a real chance to help them change their eating behaviour.
By the time they are teenagers this is much more difficult.”
The government’s response has, to date, been fragmented. There are
initiatives such as the Healthy Schools Initiative and the
Department for Education and Skills’ Food in Schools pilot project,
but nationally, there is a lack of services to help obese young
people and their families.
The NOF’s Campbell is frustrated by the lack of action. “My concern
is that the problem is too serious to wait for the results of these
pilots. Speed is of the essence – we must tackle the problem now.”
He also urges the government to “kick the food advertisers into
touch”. He says: “The government will tell you that the food
advertisers do have some restrictions on them but in reality they
have a free rein.”
However, there are signs of action on the horizon. On 3 February
the health secretary John Reid announced that a white paper on
public health would be published in the summer to address the issue
and that consultation will begin next month.
Many hope the government will be brave and invest in a joined-up
strategy engaging professionals, parents and young people and
focusing on early intervention. If not, we face the real prospect
that this generation of young people will not live as long as their
A useful exercise
It’s Friday night and 12 enthusiastic young people from a
mixture of ethnic groups are being put through their paces at
Whitechapel sports centre.
They are here for the second of two weekly sessions that give
them the opportunity to play sports, use the gym and improve their
fitness. It may not seem remarkable, but these young people are all
seriously overweight and, if it were not for the Whitechapel Club,
a six-month pilot project run by Tower Hamlets Council, they would
be unlikely to be doing any exercise at all. Here, they get
involved in basketball, football, hockey, trampolining and gym
sessions under the supervision of fitness staff. They have all been
referred by dieticians at the neighbouring Royal London Hospital
and, watching them play basketball, it’s hard to believe they have
health problems. “All of them are carrying one or two risk
indicators for diabetes or coronary disease,” says Susan
O’Callaghan, who runs the club and is physical activity development
officer at the sports centre.
“One has full-blown adult diabetes, two have sleep apnoea,
others have high blood pressure and asthma.” Confidence is also an
issue. “Many have been bullied at school. One boy gets a taxi to
and from school because he is scared to be out alone,” O’Callaghan
Three months in, O’Callaghan has seen a great improvement in
fitness levels.”I can see the change in them. They have more
energy, their clothes are looser and their peak flow rates have
improved,” she says. Tests will soon establish how much fitter
Susan Wright’s daughter Stephanie is 14 and joined the scheme
reluctantly. “She associated gyms and exercise with fit, thin
people. When she saw everyone had weight problem she felt
Lynn Porter’s daughter Terri is 13, and she too has enjoyed
coming. “She’s more active now,” Lynn says. Terri likes the club
because she can exercise away from school. She says: “I don’t like
PE at school because I have to do it with people who are really
skinny and I feel intimidated.”
Sixteen-year-old Sara-Jane Perryman says: “I’m definitely going
to carry on exercising when this finishes.” Her major problem is
the attitude of other people, and she wrote a poem (overleaf)to
express her feelings. More funding will be needed if the project is
to survive and O’Callaghan says there must be more investment in
treating children who are already obese. “It’s important to focus
on prevention, but for many children it’s too late – they are
already very overweight. But they still have a right to a life, and
a right to a good life.”
What children told ChildLine about how being overweight made
Becca, 12: “Boys in my class call me names like fat cow, fatty
and pudding – they punch and kick me too. I’m scared to go to
school, but it’s not fair that I have to stay away and get into
trouble because of the bullies.”
Sarah, 11: “After someone found out I’d been to the doctor about
my weight they started picking on me. They call me earthquake and
whale. I used to play sports but now I don’t because people laugh
Michael, 14: “I get called fat boy at school and I get angry and
take it out on my friends.”
Six heavy facts
1 About half a million children in the UK weigh more than 20 per
cent above their ideal weight.
2 National Audit Office estimates that obesity costs the economy
£2.8bn each year.
3 Only 13 per cent of girls and 14 per cent of boys eat the
recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
4 One in five children eat no fruit or vegetables.
5 Only one-third of children receive the government recommended
two hours of exercise at school a week.
6 The number of children travelling to school by car has
doubled in the past 20 years.