Fat is not just a feminist issue. It is now the most common
childhood disorder in Europe, writes Natalis
Between 1996 and 2001 the proportion of overweight children
increased by 7 per cent and of obese children by 3.5 per cent. If
these trends continue, by 2020 one-fifth of boys and one-third of
girls will be obese.
Obesity, diabetes and smoking, are the biggest health time bombs
in society. For the first time, according to the British Medical
Association’s adolescent health report, medical professionals
are seeing non-insulin diabetes in children under 10 as a direct
result of obesity.1
Poor nutrition, obesity and little exercise as a child will only
add to their susceptibility as an adult to diseases such as
coronary heart disease.
Food “deserts” and poverty play a significant role
in obesity. Food deserts are densely populated urban areas where
residents do not have access to an affordable, healthy diet. They
are often on benefits and if they do not have a car they cannot
easily get to out-of-town superstores where food is cheaper and
there is more choice. Instead they rely on the more expensive local
convenience stores and takeaways.
Other reasons for more children becoming obese – the rise
of sedentary pursuits such as playing computer games and watching
TV, and the decline in outside play and sport – are well
Children who are neglected, depressed or have other social
problems are more likely to become obese as they grow older, as are
those with obese parents.
Psychological effects of obesity leave children with low
self-esteem and eating disorders as well as feelings of sadness,
loneliness and anxiety. Many are bullied.
Obesity has become the latest burning issue in the media, yet
paradoxically the rising number of obese children suggests a
laissez-faire attitude towards their health and physical education.
So what is being done to tackle it?
According to Ian Campbell, chairperson of the National Obesity
Forum, the answer is… not nearly enough. He says: “The
majority of my colleagues are paying scant regard to the problem of
rising numbers of obese children. Everyone is interested, but few
people are doing anything about it.”
The forum, which has been running for five years, established
the first guidelines for professionals on weight management for
children. It began as a network for health professionals and is now
also a pressure group involved with the all-party parliamentary
group on obesity, campaigning for preventive measures.
Campbell believes there is a failure to recognise that obesity
in children exists, coupled with a lack of strength in the system
to diagnose it. “Even if it is diagnosed, what would we do
about it? There are no resources available and little support.
There are only about six paediatric clinics in the country that
deal with it,” he says.
The Carnegie International Weightloss Camp is the UK’s
only residential programme for overweight and obese children, and
is in its sixth year. For the first time, the six-week summer camp
is being reinforced with a two-week Easter programme.
About two-thirds of attendees are self-referrals, either from
the children themselves or their parents. Eighty-five per cent are
funded by their family, the rest by social services or health.
Rather than a “fat camp”, it is a health camp teaching
children skills to lead a more active and healthier lifestyle, says
director Paul Gately. It has impressive outcomes: one-year
follow-ups show that the weight loss of 60-80 per cent of
participants will be permanent. They may even continue to shed
Coach potato culture
Obesity is estimated to cost the economy at least £2.5
billion a year. So no wonder the government is saying it wants to
tackle the problem. Culture secretary Tessa Jowell said recently:
“Tackling the couch potato culture among young people is
important for us. Children need to know they aren’t just the
passive victims of an epidemic.”
The government has set up the Activity Co-ordination Team (ACT)
to produce a national physical activity strategy for England. The
first three-year plan is due to be published this spring.
As well as promoting healthy eating and exercise in schools, the
government launched a national strategy for PE in October 2002 so
that everyone can take part in high-quality physical education and
sport. It is backing it with a £450 million investment between
2003-6 to transform PE in schools. The target is for 75 per cent of
5-16 year olds to have at least two hours a week of PE and school
sport by 2006.
But what sort of target is this? “Pathetic,” says
Gately, who is also principal lecturer in exercise physiology and
health at Leeds Metropolitan University.
“The government doesn’t know what to do about the
problem of obese children and isn’t willing to tackle it by
moving it up the public agenda. Its strategy and vision is to align
it to other things that have been successful, for example the
five-a-day programme (vegetable and fruit portions).
“The government talks about evidence-based information, but
there’s no evidence that five portions of fruit and
vegetables a day tackles obesity. It has a positive effect on heart
disease and cancer, but you can’t align one issue with
Gately’s main criticism is that PE lessons and school
meals are under-resourced. “There is no nutritional education
in schools. If the government was serious about obesity, it would
address these issues.”
“Water pistol rather than tidal wave”
He says: “It’s like trying to turn a supertanker
around but the government is using a water pistol to do it rather
than a tidal wave. Government and policy makers talk about obesity
as a big problem but when it comes down to it they are doing
nothing to tackle it seriously.”
The recently published Wanless report envisages a crucial role
for primary care trusts and local government in tackling
The report is a follow-up to Derek Wanless’s report two
years ago which looked at long-term health trends. The latest study
recommends that the government set a clear national framework of
objectives for the key risk factors to our future health, such as
smoking and obesity. Primary care trusts and local authorities
should agree joint local targets which should be reinforced through
the NHS and local government performance management and inspection
systems. Wanless expects the public health white paper due in July
to propose plans to achieve this.
The warnings are loud and clear. It’s time for policy
makers and practitioners to start doing something about the
problem, rather than just chewing the fat.
1 BMA Board of Science
and Education, Adolescent Health, BMA, 2003
2 D Wanless, Securing
Good Health for the Whole Population, HM Treasury, 2004
There have been startling changes to Padiham St Leonard’s
C of E primary school in Burnley, Lancashire, since Julie Bradley
started as headteacher nearly four years ago. She inherited a
school with “various educational weaknesses”, as she
puts it. SAT results were about 30 per cent, there were low
expectations of children and a lack of self-esteem and
Padiham is an area of high social deprivation – 55 per
cent of pupils at the school receive free school meals. There was
no physical activity programme at the school when Bradley arrived,
but she was keen to introduce one and develop health education. The
result is a programme that prevents obesity, helps concentration
and keeps pupils healthy and active.
82 per cent not eating breakfast
A survey revealed that 82 per cent of pupils were not eating
breakfast, and those who did often ate biscuits and crisps. Now
children can arrive at school at 8.15 for breakfast for a nominal
fee. Before lessons start at nine, pupils have five minutes of
aerobic exercise in the classroom with their teacher to give them
an energy boost.
During lessons there are one-minute “brain breaks”
every 10 to 15 minutes where they do some sort of physical activity
such as rolling their head or touching their toes to aid
concentration. At mid-morning break a healthy eating club provides
toast, fruit and smoothies, each 10p.
During breaks the pupils can take part in structured play,
including football, netball, circuit training and tennis on a
playground with multi-sport markings. All this activity left some
children on too much of a high after lunch so five minutes of
yoga-type stretching exercises follow the lunch break to calm
Bradley says: “We do a lot of work around healthy eating
and living. We talk to children about eating five portions of fruit
and vegetables a day and we send flyers to parents about healthy
eating and going to bed early.”
Bradley’s philosophy that “an unhealthy child
can’t think to full capacity” has been borne out.
Standards have risen and the school now has 80 per cent SAT results
despite one-third of pupils having special needs.
She believes that schools have to start as early as possible to
teach children about eating well. “We have to realise that we
have to do it and make an effort. Schools have a huge part to
Bradley herself seems to have boundless energy and enthusiasm
for the work and has no time for those who are not prepared to do
something about the problem: “I get really agitated with
people who sit back and say ‘what other initiative can we
throw money at?’. I have done this on £5,000. If it can
work in my school, it can work anywhere.”