Big business 'triumphs' over children in obesity strategy

Annette Rawstrone
Thursday, August 18, 2016

The long-awaited strategy to tackle childhood obesity fails to acknowledge the critical early years, causing widespread disappointment among child health and early years experts.

While the report highlights that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, putting them at greater risk of health problems in later life, it focuses heavily on primary-age children.

Restrictions on advertising and promotional deals on junk food have also been removed from the plan which was published by the Department of Health today. This is despite Public Health England’s insistence that this would be the most effective way to stop the rise in overweight children.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, formerly a doctor, branded ‘Childhood Obesity: A plan for action’ as a ‘triumph for industry lobbyists’ and added that ‘big interests have trumped those of children’. But public health minister Nicola Blackwood, launching the plan, said: ‘This Government is absolutely committed to reducing childhood obesity.’

The plan to reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years centres on encouraging the food industry to cut the amount of sugar in food and drinks and getting primary school children to eat more healthily and stay active. The recommendations include:

Soft drinks industry levy on producers and importers which will be invested in England in programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school age children. This includes putting a further £10 million a year into school healthy breakfast clubs.

Taking out 20 per cent of sugar in products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20 per cent by 2020, including a 5 per cent reduction in year one. Initially focusing on breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods such as pastries, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads.

An hour of physical activity every day for every primary school child. At least 30 minutes delivered in school, with the remaining supported by parents and carers outside school.

Creating a new healthy rating scheme for primary schools from September 2017 to encourage children to eat better and move more. It will be taken into account during Ofsted inspections.

Supporting early years settings by developing revised menus by December 2016. These will be incorporated into voluntary guidelines to help meet current Government dietary recommendations. In early 2017, the Government will launch a campaign to raise awareness of these guidelines among practitioners and parents and will update the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework to make specific reference to the UK Chief Medical Officers’ guidelines for physical activity in the early years.

Professor of Nutrition and Childhood Obesity at Leeds Beckett and chair of the Association for the Study of Obesity Pinki Sahota said, ‘Overall, the plan lacks bold actions that are needed to reverse the current high levels of child obesity such as: a ban on junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed; reduction in portion sizes; reformulation targets for industry that address of high energy density foods; curbing the promotion of unhealthy foods in supermarket; investment to increase and extend evidence-based child weight management services. There is a need for long term, mandatory and sustainable policies to combat such a chronic problem.’ She also highlights that the new guidelines for early years food will not be mandatory.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘We share concerns that the final strategy has fallen short of what was originally expected, and the watering down of measures such as reducing sugar levels in children’s food and drink – which will be voluntary for companies – is disappointing.

‘What’s more, while the development of menus to support early years settings – an initiative the Alliance is part of – is undoubtedly positive, it’s concerning to see that the strategy focuses so heavily on primary-age children with much less emphasis on the early years, despite the report’s own recognition that the early years is “a crucial time for children’s development”.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association agreed: ‘In this report, the spotlight is on schools but we believe that work needs to start with babies and toddlers.

‘For many children, efforts to support them to eat healthily and develop an active lifestyle, from the age of five, will start too late and they will need to work very hard to break bad habits that are already established. There’s a great opportunity within the nursery sector to make a real difference and now is the time to step up that good work.’

While acknowledging the ‘overall weak strategy’ Lala Manners, director of Active Matters, welcomed updating the EYFS with guidelines for physical activity. ‘This will ensure that physical activity is embedded in daily practice and will drive changes in accompanying assessment procedures for this area. Ofsted will then be encouraged to amend their inspection procedures to include measures taken by settings to support physical activity, health and wellbeing. Practitioners will therefore be encouraged to seek relevant training to ensure they fully support physical activity within their practice,’ she said.

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