They are shocking statistics: one-fifth of children are overweight or obese when they begin in Reception class, and this figure increases to one-third by the time they leave primary school. The most deprived children are twice as likely as the least deprived to be obese at Reception and Year 6. This is why, in our report to Government before Christmas, the Health Select Committee called on the Prime Minister to take brave and bold action.
Children’s BMI is now measured routinely through the National Child Measurement Programme, but few effective interventions are in place to help those identified as overweight and obese. In our view, the lifetime physical and emotional consequences for obese children can no longer be ignored, including the increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers. It is also associated with poor mental health in adults, and stigma and bullying in childhood.
It is important that parents as well as children understand healthy eating. One recommendation is for clear standards for healthy school meals to apply to all schools, and for clear information for parents and schools about what to include in a healthy packed lunch.
But we also need to change the environment in which we buy and eat food, and we need to make healthy choices the easiest choices. That is why our report recommends:
- ending deep discounting and promotion of unhealthy food and drink;
- tougher controls on marketing unhealthy food and drink, including an end to product placement of unhealthy foods at checkouts;
- reductions in sugar in food and drink;
- a tax on sugary soft drinks, with all proceeds targeted to help those children at greatest risk of obesity; and
- labelling of single portions of products, showing their sugar content in teaspoons.
While a tax on sugary soft drinks may be a controversial policy, in our view this is a proportionate response given the scale of the problem we now face. Some 500ml bottles of soft drinks contain as much as 14 teaspoons of sugar – that’s more than double a child’s daily recommended amount. Not only would such a tax send a clear message to parents and children, and reduce sales, but revenue raised from this can be channelled directly into programmes to help children affected by obesity, particularly those in the most deprived areas, where rates of childhood obesity are twice as high as in the least deprived areas.
We believe it is essential to intervene to tackle obesity as early as possible
As well as contributing to obesity, sugar can have a devastating impact on children’s teeth. Tooth decay is the most common reason for hospital admission among children aged five to nine years, with some 46,500 under-19s admitted to hospital for this reason in 2013-14.
We recognise that exercise plays an important role, but that matters whatever a child’s weight. There is a danger that some may feel this is a problem that can be tackled just through exercise – it cannot.
We also believe it is essential to intervene to tackle obesity as early as possible. The National Child Measurement Programme measures the BMI of children at Reception – aged four to five years – and again at Year 6 – aged 10 to 11 years. This programme is critically important but, given that another £200 million is being taken away from local authority public health budgets this year, we are concerned that funding for this must be protected. And, in our view, the opportunities for early intervention that this programme offers are being missed.
A fifth of children are already overweight by the time they start primary school, suggesting that it would be helpful to begin measuring children’s BMI from age two or three so that interventions can be targeted as early as possible. We have recommended that the Government must protect funding for the programme, and should evaluate the benefit of extending measurements to younger children – this could help target interventions towards children who are already gaining excessive weight at a very early age.
In summary, bold action is needed by Government to reform the food environment that makes it far too easy for children to gain excess weight; we need to intervene to support these children as early as possible; and money raised through a tax on sugary drinks should be reinvested in measures to help prevent and tackle obesity among the most deprived children, who are the most vulnerable to obesity and its devastating consequences.