In the UK, two-thirds of adults and a quarter of children aged 2-10 years old are overweight or obese. National Obesity Awareness Week helps to promote awareness of this national health concern and supports ways to tackle it. Worryingly, if the current trend continues, the number of adults who are expected to be obese or overweight is predicted to reach 70% by 2034.
According to statistics published by Public Health England, 1 in 5 children in reception is classed as either overweight or obese. Obesity rates are highest in the most deprived 10% of the population and this is backed up by a UK cohort study published in The European Journal of Public Health in 2015, which found that children aged 5 and from the poorest income groups are twice as likely to be obese compared to their most well-off counterparts.
How does obesity impact on children’s health?
Obesity can have serious physical and mental implications for children, and there’s a real likelihood that an obese child will become an obese adult. It is an extremely difficult cycle to break, so early intervention is key. Being obese increases a child’s risk for a number of diseases and health conditions, including:
· High blood pressure
· Bone and joint problems
· High cholesterol
· Type 2 diabetes
· Heart disease
· Risk of premature mortality in adulthood
Obesity takes an emotional toll on children, too. The social stigma attached to being overweight can be as damaging to a child as the physical conditions that often accompany obesity. Studies show that children as young as 6 years may associate negative stereotypes with excess weight and believe that a heavy child is simply less likeable. Therefore, overweight children are more likely to get bullied and teased by their peers in school, resulting in low self-esteem.
How does this health concern impact society?
Obesity in childhood is not only detrimental to the child, but it is very costly to public health services. When obesity persists into adulthood, this can create a potentially lifelong dependency on NHS services and prescription drugs to control conditions such as asthma.
It may surprise you to learn that, according to the Department of Health, we spend more each year on the treatment of obesity and diabetes than we do on the police, fire service and judicial system combined! In 2014/15, an estimated £5.1 billion was spent by the NHS on overweight and obesity-related ill-health.
Obesity can also have a profoundly negative effect in pregnancy, too. Being obese increases the mother’s risk of gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, blood clots and post-partum haemorrhaging. Overweight women are more likely to need assistance such as the use of forceps, suction cap (ventouse) or caesarean section to deliver their babies.
What causes obesity and overweight children?
Poor diet and sedentary lifestyles (sitting still) are the two primary causes of excess weight and obesity in children. In England, a study by Public Health England found that only 21% of boys and 16% of girls aged 5-15 achieved the recommended levels of physical activity.
The NHS recommends that children who can walk on their own should be physically active every day for at least 180 minutes (three hours). “Physically active” can include light activity such as standing up, moving around, rolling and playing, as well as more energetic activities such as skipping, hopping, running, jumping and active play such as ball games.
The consumption of daily sugar in childhood is thought to be a major contributory factor to children gaining weight. The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that sugary drinks alone account for 30% of a typical 4-10 year old’s daily sugar intake.
How can I support active and healthy lifestyles at my setting?
Childcare settings can play an active role in promoting healthy living for children. On a practical level, it’s important to provide regular opportunities to be active, to reduce the times that children are sitting still, as well as to provide meal and snacks with fruit and vegetables at structured times.
It’s also important that staff advocate and demonstrate healthy lifestyles by being positive role models for the children. Here are some further tips:
Supporting families to be healthier:
· Signpost families to weight management services provided by the local council to help children eat healthier, balanced diets
· Encourage families to visit the Change4Life website for tips, vouchers and recipes
· Support mothers to sustain breastfeeding. Not only does this have a protective factor against childhood obesity, it also provides a good start for a child’s nutritional grounding
· Promote awareness of the Healthy Start scheme which provides families on low incomes with free vouchers each week which can be exchanged for fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables, milk and infant formula.
Involving children in choosing physical activities:
· Encourage your staff to ask the children about what physical activities they like, either individually, in small group discussions, or by getting them to draw smiley faces next to photographs of activities they enjoy doing.
· Use a ‘Wow’ board where parents and carers post photographs and notes about the activities they did during the weekend/holidays. Encourage staff to ask the children about them.
Helping staff become more physically active:
· Make your staff aware of physical activity opportunities in the community, like Parkrun – a free weekly 5km run or walk. Advertising these on a staff noticeboard will help
· Develop an active travel policy and encourage your staff to walk or cycle
to work, rather than using their car or public transport
· Organise staff social evenings which promote doing physical activity together, e.g Zumba or badminton
The early years are a crucial time for children’s development, especially when considering that 1 in 5 children are already overweight or obese before they start school. The good news is there are plenty of things you can do to intervene early and promote a healthy, active lifestyle in your setting.
As well as reducing sedentary behaviour and eating a nutritionally-balanced meals at structured times, having staff role-model healthy food choices and active behaviours on a daily basis will help children become healthy, active adolescents and adults.
In November, the government published guidelines on the provision of healthy food and example menus to help early years settings meet current dietary recommendations. This was developed in partnership with the Children’s Food Trust and replaces the 2000 version of the document.