Pre-school citywide strategy leads to fall in obesity rates

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Leeds is the first city in England to have cut its rates of child obesity with the help of HENRY, an early years prevention strategy.

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Research presented at at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow and published in the journal Pediatric Obesity found ‘a notable decrease’ in the rates of obesity among Reception-aged children in Leeds.

The prevalence of obesity in Leeds for school entry children fell from 9.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent between 2009 and 2017, according to the findings, while comparable cities and England as a whole showed no change.

The city’s strategy was developed with the help of obesity prevention intervention programme HENRY (Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young), which trains early years practitioners and health professionals working with young children and families, as well as providing a range of programmes for parents and young children in community settings.

The declining obesity rate was primarily observed among the most disadvantaged children in Leeds, where rates dropped from 11.5 per cent to 10.5 per cent, but also affected the more affluent, with a drop from 6.8 per cent to 6.0 per cent.

The prevalence of obesity in children in Year 6 in Leeds remained stable over the period of the study, but increased in neighbouring cities and for England as a whole.

The study’s authors suggested Leeds' citywide childhood obesity strategy, which was adopted in 2008 and focuses on pre-school children, may explain the findings.

In Leeds, HENRY was primarily implemented in children's centres in the city's most disadvantaged areas, where the biggest drop in obesity rates has been observed.

Chief executive of HENRY, Kim Roberts, said, ‘Leeds adopted a citywide child obesity strategy in 2008 with HENRY training and family programmes at its core. Based on evidence, HENRY supports families with young children to adopt and maintain healthier lifestyles. Practitioners working with young families were all trained to support families to provide a healthy start in life and programmes for parents and young children were delivered in community settings.’

Dr Ian Cameron, director of public health at Leeds City Council, added, ‘This research is great evidence to use as we play our part in helping children and adults live longer, healthier lives. With national data showing one in 10 children are obese by the time they start school and two thirds remaining obese when they leave primary school, we’re delighted to be making positive progress in Leeds.’ 

Annie Denny, nutrition development manager at the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYNP), said, ‘We understand that the success in Leeds stems from a city-wide approach to obesity prevention that focuses the pre-school years at the heart. Clearly a fundamental part of this comes from the implementation of the HENRY programme and its role in training those working in early years in healthy eating and exercise. 

‘This demonstrates that putting early years nutrition at the heart of local policy, across all sectors including nurseries, and training staff, providing them with the skills to interact with parents and children, is something that supports the reduction of childhood obesity, which is fundamental to the EYNP and our beliefs also.’

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