National Obesity Awareness Week runs from the 8th-14th January. It helps to promote awareness of obesity as a UK health concern, supporting ways to prevent and tackle the problem as a nation.
According to statistics published by Public Health England, two-thirds of adults and a quarter of 2-10- year-olds are overweight or obese. In addition to this, key findings from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England in 2014-15 highlighted that over a fifth of children measured in Reception were either overweight or obese.
Worryingly, if the current trend in obesity continues, the number of adults who are expected to be obese or overweight is predicted to reach 70% by 2034.
How does obesity impact on children’s health?
Obesity can have serious physical implications for children and many obese children will go on to become obese adults. Dietary and physical activity habits which are established in childhood are difficult to change later down the line, which is why early intervention is key. Being overweight and obese increases a child’s risk for a number of 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 stigma attached to being overweight can be as damaging to a child as the health conditions which often go hand in hand with obesity. Overweight children are more likely to get bullied and teased by their peers in school, resulting in low self-esteem and mental health problems such as depression.
How does this health concern impact society?
Obesity is not only detrimental to the child, but it is very costly to the public purse. It may surprise you to learn that, according to Government statistics, the UK spends more each year on the treatment of obesity and diabetes than on the police, fire service and judicial system combined! In 2014/15, the NHS spent an estimated £5.1 billion on ill-health as a result of patients being overweight and obese.
Obesity can have a profoundly negative effect on pregnant mothers, 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, vacuum device (Ventouse) or caesarean section to deliver their babies.
What causes obesity and overweight children?
Poor diet and sedentary lifestyles (sitting still for too long) are the two primary causes of excess weight and obesity in children. A report by Public Health England cited 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 independently should be physically active every day for at least 180 minutes. Being 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 ball games.
The consumption of daily sugar in childhood is also thought to be a major contributory factor to children gaining weight. A comprehensive study by Public Health England National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that sugary drinks account for 30% of a typical 4-10 year old’s daily sugar intake. To put this into perspective, the Government recommends (for all age groups) that sugar derived from foods such as cakes, pastries, biscuits and sugary drinks should not exceed 10% of a person’s total energy intake.
How can I support active and healthy lifestyles within my setting?
Early years 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.
Here are some further tips:
Supporting families to be healthier:
- 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
- Encourage families to visit the Change4Life website for tips and healthy food recipes
- Signpost families to weight management services provided by the local council to help children to eat healthier, balanced diets
- 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
Encouraging children to have input into 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 can post photographs and notes about the activities they did during the weekend/holidays. Encourage staff to ask the children about them, then physical activities can be planned which will best capture the children’s interests
Helping staff become more physically active:
- Develop an active travel policy and encourage your staff to walk or cycle to work, rather than using their car or public transport
- Encourage staff to be role models at all times and enjoy doing physical activities with the children
- Organise staff social evenings which promote doing physical activity together, e.g Zumba or badminton
- Promote events in the community which offer opportunities to be active like attending a local parkrun on a Saturday morning. Parkrun is a free, weekly, 5km timed run or walk which is open to everyone. Advertising these events on a staff noticeboard will help raise awareness
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 that 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 nutritionally-balanced meals at structured times, having staff role-model healthy food choices and active behaviours on a daily basis will help children on their journey to become healthy, active adults in later life.
The Government have published guidelines for the early years sector on providing healthy food to children, including example menus. The menus are designed to contribute to the delivery of the Government’s plan to significantly reduce childhood obesity over the next decade.