Childhood obesity – what parents need to know

14th October 2019 nickfarnsworth

In October 2019, Professor Dame Sally Davies published, the Chief Medical Officer published her report on childhood obesity – Time to solve childhood obesity. Childhood obesity is a crisis, but the report caused an outrage for the wrong reasons, and many good recommendations that should have hit the headlines went unnoticed and unreported.

What’s the issue?

The headline should have been that “obesity has risen for the fourth year in a row – this is what we should be doing about it”. The level of childhood obesity has reached such a level that Professor Dame Sally Davies appeals for us to take action. She said “We owe it to all our children” to raise fit and healthy children.

The report flags up the negative consequences of childhood obesity on health, which are numerous. She warns “Many children who are obese or overweight suffer physical health issues, including type 2 diabetes, asthma and musculoskeletal pain, and experience mental health problems, such as depression, as set out in Annex B. These affect the quality of our children’s lives, their education and their life chances. In later life, these can reduce their productivity, earnings and shorten their lives.”

What did the report say?

Professor Dame Sally Davies made 49 recommendations to tackle childhood obesity, and discusses how we can raise healthier children from birth. The recommendations cover a broad range of issues such as the increasing the soft drink levy, restricting the marketing of unhealthy food and drink options, finding ways to encourage people to eat healthier, making drinking water more available, better infrastructure for active transport like cycling etc. Despite the extensive recommendations that any parent should be aware of, her report was heavily criticised.

What did the newspapers say the report said?

The coverage of the report by the mainstream media has focused entirely on one recommendation, to stop snacking on public transport.

The BBC and the Times both reported “Obesity: Ban snacking on public transport, top doctor says”. The Sun went one step further: “Ban all food from trains & buses and axe pies at football matches to tackle obesity, urges top doc”.

Indeed the report makes one recommendation to stop children snacking on public transport, and another for “major sporting events to only advertise and sell low calorie, low fat, salt and or sugar products.” However, the report does not say that pies should be axed. Surely a simpler solution would be to come up with a healthier pie?

The newspaper headlines definitely appealed to those who say we live in a nanny state, and failed to hit the warning to parents and carers that childhood obesity is on the rise.

Who is to blame?

The report stops short of blaming anyone. The researchers found that over 70% of the public think it is the responsibility of the government to tackle childhood obesity. So whilst we don’t like to live in a nanny state, we expect the government to take responsibility…

The report was careful not to criticise the role of parents, perhaps for fear of backlash. An earlier study on a similar topic by University College London, that provided “causal evidence” linking a mother’s work to the weight of her offspring, caused outrage on Twitter when it was published, so the report is very cautious about sensitive topics such as breastfeeding – so carefully in fact that the recommendations go unreported.

Does the report go far enough?

Most of the recommendations are sound and well worth a read – click this link – but in my view,the recommendations could go further. By focusing on one recommendation about snacking on public transport, the British press have missed the big picture.

Is snacking itself the problem? I would look at the reason why kids are snacking. My children’s school offers a good daily menu that the headmaster is proud of, however my observation is that the portions are tiny. Both my children love the Friday special “fish and chips” but it is no more than two fish very miserly, fish fingers. When the kids finish school, kids are starving. So, although it may seem counterintuitive, I would increase the portions so that children don’t need to snack between meals.

The report highlights the need for physical exercise for children. As parents, we can do more to get our children actively playing by limiting screentime. It is far too easy to offer a child screentime, instead of playing with their toys or playing outside. Article 31 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) relates to a right to play, central to physical activity. A related Committee of the United Nations has since expressed concern that “growing dependence on screen-related activities may be associated with reduced levels of physical activity among children, poor sleep patterns, growing levels of obesity.”

What can parents do?

It is not just the government’s fault. From day one, as parents we have to make life decisions that will affect our baby’s health. One of the first decisions is whether to breastfeed or not. For some mothers, breastfeeding is not a possibility so it is not even a choice. Either way, parents need to be given the right information and support so that they can make the right decisions, which the Professor Dame Sally Davies report supports.

When our children move onto solids, we choose what food and drinks we give them – simple decisions such as do we offer them water, juice or even a fizzy drink. This decision will impact child for years to come. When they are little, they don’t know about flavoured juice or fizzy drinks, so why offer them? Maybe because marketing companies are telling us they are a healthy alternative. I understand that parents will make the wrong decisions with the wrong information, and the report makes some excellent recommendations to curb unhealthy marketing.

From day one, we decide how we play with our children. Do we sit them in the corner or do we all play together, what do we play with them, how do we stimulate them. how we play with them will affect their development, so these decisions do matter.

Do we let our baby watch a screen?
Screens are controversial. They are also easy, but here are a few comments I picked up from Mums Net written by mums. Mums are worried that “lots of little ones [are] aplaying on screens rather than interacting with their environment and real people.”. Another says “Screen time makes your kids fat, stops them from learning to talk, and gives them heart problems”. There are alternatives to the screen. The beloved National Childcare Trust, the NCT, has examined the benefits of play for the development of children under two and concluded that playing together is good for children’s development.

To conclude, I can only sympathise that it is not easy being a parent. `i want my children to grwo up in my footsteps playing outdoors and having fun. We all start off with the same intention, to give our child the best start in life so that they are fit and healthy. No one wants their child to be obese or to turn into a sloth. However, such is the pressure of giving the best start in life, that parents now worry more about being judged if we are doing the best job possible than actually getting on with the job. Professor Dame Sally Davies suggests that we will make mistakes because the information we are sold is often wrong or conflicting. If we try to get the majority of our decisions right and can justify our decisions, it is one step closer to making sure our children grow up fit and healthy.