Politicians sound the alarm on child obesity

MPs on the Commons’ health committee have pointed to how
the tide of child obesity can be turned back. So what do they
recommend? Katie Leason reports.

School children today wear trousers two sizes bigger than those
worn by their predecessors 20 years ago. Sadly, this may be a sign
of things to come. A report by the House of Commons health
committee goes as far as to suggest that by 2020, more than half of
all children will be obese.

The consequences could be frightening. Obesity is associated
with poor physical and mental health, and a reduced life expectancy
of nine years. The health committee’s report warns that
today’s generation of children could be the first to suffer a
fall in life expectancy for more than 100 years.

Most overweight children become overweight adults and are more
likely to bring up overweight children, the report states, making
it essential for healthy eating habits to be nurtured during
childhood. To this extent, school is a “crucial environment”, both
in terms of encouraging good nutrition and in helping children to
become more active.

Making sure that healthy food is on offer during the school day
seems obvious. Currently the opposite is the case. School budgets
benefit by more than £10m a year by installing vending
machines selling crisps, fizzy drinks and chocolates, while
“cafeteria-style food outlets” allow children to “opt out” of
healthy choices. This is compared with schools in Finland where
children are given no option but a healthy lunch, which includes a
portion of salad, no pudding, and either water or milk to drink.
Part of the problem is that independent suppliers are trying to
produce food as cheaply as possible – some schools have just 40p
per child available for two courses.

Children should be taught how to choose and prepare healthy
meals as an essential part of their education and “not an optional
extra delivered only periodically”. This should involve practical
cookery lessons, as well as classroom lessons about nutrition and
food labelling.

Obesity is defined in the report as a problem caused “when
people overeat in relation to their energy needs”. It has long been
recognised that children are increasingly inactive.

Physical activity has a positive effect on academic performance
as well as on health, so the committee recommends that children
should take part in three hours of physical activity each week, and
suggests that schools offer a wider range of options including
activities such as dance and aerobics.

Much of the report looks at the role of food advertising and
promotion in the eating habits of children. The inquiry found that
food companies were deliberately targeting children as young as
three, and that advertising campaigns sometimes relied on “pester
power” – encouraging children to harass their parents into buying

Advertising was found to have a direct impact on the food that
children selected, and that promotional activity was not limited to
TV, shops and restaurants. Schools were also subjected to it, and
in some cases children were, ironically, being encouraged to eat
crisps and chocolate in order to gain sports equipment. Even school
breakfast clubs were susceptible to promotions, with Burger King
known to have been a sponsor.

Obesity is a serious medical problem, the committee concludes,
with childhood obesity a “worrying and increasingly common subset”.
Few would disagree with its conclusion that: “The treatment of
children with obesity is, if anything, more important than that for
adults, as habits set down in childhood are likely to form the
pattern for the rest of a person’s life.”

Recommendations affecting children

  • All children should receive practical training on how to choose
    and prepare healthy food.
  • Government should issue guidance to schools recommending they
    do not accept sponsorship from manufacturers associated with
    unhealthy foods or install vending machines selling unhealthy
  • The DfES should make sure all children eat a healthy school
    meal at lunchtime.
  • Children should participate in three hours’ physical
    activity per week and more PE options such as dance and aerobics
    should be available.
  • Teachers should receive training on children’s diet,
    physical activity levels, and how to help obese children combat
  • Obese children and young people should have prompt access to
    specialist treatment.
  • School children should have their body mass index measured
    annually at school, perhaps by a school nurse or health

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