Well, it is now official as the results are out there in the public domain and we can’t pretend that it was just a bad dream. It does not make for an easy read but the numbers don’t lie and in fact, the figures show that the situation is even worse than anyone expected. The question is, will these shocking figures finally prompt the UK government to act for the sake of future generations? No, the unwelcome news is not related to the number of growing Brexit woes or the rise of Trumpism or even the domination of the X Factor by supporters of Honey G. The unhealthy results make official what every parent and teacher has noticed over the years – more children are getting fatter. Hot off the press, the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England, 2015-16 school year has just been published and it confirms that we are definitely losing the battle against obesity. Figures now show that more children are becoming overweight and obese to the point where it has become normalised. In fact, over one fifth of children in Reception (aged 4–5 years) and over one third of Year 6 pupils (aged 10–11 years) were classified as being overweight or obese. Other depressing ‘highlights’ of the publication show that obesity prevalence was higher for boys than girls and that deprived areas in England had double the prevalence for obesity than in the least deprived areas.
This may be stating the obvious but it is worth just thinking about those figures for a minute. In a Reception class of 30, there will be more than 6 children aged 4-5yrs who are either overweight or obese. In Year 6, over 10 children in a class of 30 will be overweight or obese. This is simply staggering and the figures should be ringing governmental alarm bells calling for urgent action. What is even more astounding is to see such figures while the government’s Childhood Obesity – A plan for Action is still being digested.
The long-awaited and much delayed strategy, which aims to ‘significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years’ has received much criticism after the promise of ‘draconian’ action turned out to be a damp squib. Rather than endorse the 8 recommendations made in the Public Health England report Sugar Reduction, The evidence for action, the strategy focuses on increasing physical activity and asking industry to voluntarily reduce the sugar content of their products by 20% by 2020. But without any punitive measures for companies that don’t voluntarily reformulate, why would they risk losing their loyal consumers?
Even the British Retail Consortium is unhappy with the voluntary code as a mandatory sugar reduction would ensure that all companies would have to follow suit rather than only those who could afford to. But the strategy’s approach is about ‘respecting consumer choice’, the ‘economic realities’ and ‘the need to eat’ even if the only choices are unhealthy. So the BOGOF offers of high sugar junk will continue to flourish alongside the flashy TV ads that promote sugary snacks to children before the 9pm watershed. Sure the government has the magic bullet of the sugar tax to aim at industry but as it doesn’t take effect for another couple of years, I can’t imagine it as being much of a threat, yet. And meanwhile, the number of children getting fatter continues to grow.
I cannot imagine how much worse the overweight and obesity figures need to be to cause the government to address the problem head-on when they don’t even take on the recommendations of their own advisory group. But it is worth repeating 3 key points made in the Public Health England report’s recommendations:
- It is unlikely that a single action—such as the sugar tax—would be effective in reducing sugar intake
- A structured approach, involving restrictions on price promotions and marketing, product reformulation, portion size reduction and price increase on unhealthy products, implemented in parallel is likely to have a more universal effect
- As sugar intakes are higher in lower income groups, reducing levels of sugar in foods through reformulation may have the biggest effect on this group
It is such a shame that the government’s obesity strategy hasn’t fully endorsed these recommendations and come up with something more robust and it feels like we’ve missed another opportunity to make a real difference to children’s health. Especially as the NCMP has underlined that families who live in deprived areas need governmental action the most. It is not difficult to understand that if you live in a food desert, your access to healthy, affordable food is limited and the latest figures show that the unhealthy trend towards obesity is continuing to grow.
However, it does not mean that you cannot do anything about it because for most parents, there is plenty. Ultimately, we are responsible for our own and our children’s health. We buy the food, provide the meals and enable our kids to get exercise or not. We can also see if are children are becoming overweight and not ignore it. It is not easy and takes more work and time, for example, to shop and cook rather than ordering a takeaway. But for most of us, it is not impossible.
We can also pressure our schools and sports teams to provide healthier meals and snacks as they really should be doing. And we can involve our children at home with the shopping, planning of meals and yes, the cooking. This can obviously be very testing at times and may elevate stress levels sky-high but it really does get easier (and can even be rewarding!) We can also help more to support our children participating in sports and fuel them up with healthier foods and drinks. Of course, this also means asking ourselves if we are eating a healthy diet and getting enough exercise, too. And if not, why not? If we want a healthy future for our children and grandchildren, what are we doing to arm our families against obesity?
As we wait for Brexit to pan out (and the implications of Trumpism and Honey G) we have to hope that there will be a point where the government and industry will be forced to respond to the obesity figures even if their motives are primarily financial. In the meantime, I will continue to play the bad guy in my family and fight the ongoing war against junk food as my children go through adolescence. I may be war weary from arguments caused by saying ‘no’ to snacks of biscuits or copious amounts of Nando’s sauce but it’s a small price to pay if I can give them a healthy future.
Now for the recipe. This one came about after finding some abandoned rice cakes in the back of the cupboard that my daughter no longer liked the flavour of and I wondered if I could do something with them. Turns out that they make an amazing Popcorn chicken.