Today is World Obesity Day, and with three-quarters of the British population set to be overweight or obese in a single generation, we simply cannot watch our children eat themselves to death any longer.
The UK has an alarming “obesity gap”. The poorest 20 per cent of children are nearly three times more likely to be obese than the richest 20 per cent. This is why I wholeheartedly welcome the Centre for Social Justice’s plan to begin a report looking at the root causes of childhood obesity in Britain’s most deprived communities and set out solid recommendations for the Government to take forward, so we can tackle this issue once and for all and ensure our children have the best life chances.
Research shows a stark link between poverty and childhood obesity. At five years old, children from deprived backgrounds are almost twice as likely to be obese than their least deprived peers. By the time they finish primary school the gap widens even further with poor children being almost three times more likely to be obese than their better off peers. The number one reason why primary school age children attend hospital is to have their teeth extracted as a result of too much sugar, especially amongst those from deprived backgrounds.
Obese and overweight children are much more likely to become obese adults. As an obese adult, they will not only increase their risk of incurring the long list of potentially fatal obesity-driven diseases including diabetes, cancer, amputation and disability, but also increase their risk of poor educational attainment and lower chances of employment.
While I am one of many who have said that if people started to eat less and move more the obesity crisis could at least start to be tackled, I am also aware that it is not as simple as that. I speak from personal experience as someone who has been technically obese and finally lost 28 lbs. I am well aware of how difficult it is to not only lose weight, but to keep it off. In fact, I am struggling with that right now!
My own experience, the experience of countless others, and new scientific studies show that if we really want to effectively reduce obesity rates we need to look to solutions beyond just eating less and moving more. Though these remain an important part of the solution, they are not the only solution nor do they account for the many complex factors that contribute to our weight.
As a member of the House of Lords, I have used my own story to spark debate and discussion in the Chamber because like many others I am horrified to see that obesity and the resulting health problems have become the biggest public health crises facing Britain today.
While discussion is important, the time has come to act. We need to find out what the root causes of obesity are so that we can effectively reverse the alarming trends and ensure our children have a good quality of life and do not die younger than their parents due to obesity.
When the Government published its long-delayed Childhood Obesity Plan this summer, it was clear that it was not the “game-changing” roadmap for tackling this complex and threatening health epidemic as promised by Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt earlier this year. Instead it was a watered down collection of suggestions for the food industry and our schools to make positive changes as they see fit. The Plan (no longer a full strategy) fails to include many of the recommendations made by Public Health England this year, including a ban on junk food sold at supermarket checkouts and no junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed so as not to allow junk food industry giants to target children. The Plan also states that we have to wait until 2020 to see if any progress has been made, and if it hasn’t then the Government will use “other levers to achieve the same aims”.
That doesn’t sound like a game-changing plan to me. That sounds like a disappointing cop-out.
This plan is a missed opportunity to work towards improving our economy and the life chances of our poorest children, who are three times more likely to be obese. In ruling out a robust obesity strategy, the Prime Minister has allowed the Government to balance the books against the health of our poorest children.
The CSJ will be looking at all aspects of obesity including diet and access to healthy food, the importance of sport and physical exercise, the impact of adverse childhood experiences including trauma and growing up in poverty, the effect that food industry practices have on obesity, and how the industry itself can play a positive role in reducing the current rates.
As the Childhood Obesity Plan concludes it is not the “final word” but “the start of a conversation”, so I welcome the CSJ’s involvement and look forward to them not only contributing to the conversation, but actually helping make the change we so desperately need.
Baroness Jenkin is a life peer in the House of Lords.
This article originally appeared on the Telegraph Online.