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Childhood Obesity – We Must Improve School Menus And Teach Healthy Eating

Our poorest children are facing long-term illness, it’s time to take action…

  • Childhood Obesity – We Must Improve School Menus And Teach Healthy Eating

It seems that every day is no longer just a day of the week, but also an occasion for raising awareness or commemoration. For example, in October we mark World Ballet Day, the International Day of Older Persons and World Vegetarian Day. Today, as I write, it’s Global Handwashing Day.

I was surprised, however, to be introduced to World Obesity Day, which falls on 10 October. It seemed rather an odd choice – until I read about the research produced on this date by Imperial College London.

Published in the Lancet medical journal, it informs us that 124 million children are obese worldwide, a more than tenfold rise over the past four decades, with the potential global cost set to total $1.2tn by 2025.

The largest increase in obese children and adolescents aged five to 19 since 1975 has been in East Asia, the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the Middle East and North Africa.

In 1975 there were five million obese girls, but by last year there were 50 million. The number of obese boys has risen from six million to 74 million in the same period.

Experts say there is a serious and worsening divide between the richer families and the poorest. Figures from Public Health England show that 11.7% of children in Year 6, aged about 11, were obese last year among the richest 5% of the population, but 26% were obese in the poorest 5%.

So the poorest children are overweight, malnourished and heading for an adulthood of long-term illness.

There are many reasons for this rise, and junk food, so well marketed to children, heads the list. We have created a situation that has led to us becoming addicted to sugar.

Interestingly, in July, the government implemented a ban on the online advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar aimed at children, including stopping characters and celebrities popular with children from promoting unhealthy options.

This was a positive step, especially as research from Ofcom has found that children aged five to 15 spend around 15 hours a week online – overtaking the time spent watching TV for the first time.

However, there is much more to do given the annual £143m spent by the top 18 companies promoting crisps, confectionary and sugary drinks.

Coca Cola and Cadburys are at the summit, the figures in stark contrast to the £5.2m that the government spends on its anti-obesity Change4Life social marketing campaign.

Small steps

However, while they may seem overwhelming, huge problems can be addressed in small steps. My first step was connecting with Active Movement, a physical development programme that encourages simple changes to daily behaviour for staff, parents and children, such as walking a little further or, with the help of a doggy friend, getting the children to stand more and sit less so they burn more calories.

My second step was to join the Early Years Nutrition Partnership (EYNP, eynpartnership.org). Operating as a social enterprise EYNP provides nutritional advice, menu checking and training to nurseries and schools using a business model that allows us to support nurseries in poor neighbourhoods or with high numbers of poor children at low or no cost.

EYNP celebrated its first birthday recently and elicited the help of the vegetable superstar Ben Faulkes otherwise known as CBeebies favourite Mr Bloom, who wrote us this healthy eating song:

Let’s make our third step to learn about nutrition, improve our menus and teach children about being healthy. Sing out loud with the children and start your own march on obesity!

June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit leyf.org.uk, June’s blog at juneosullivan.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter at @JuneOSullivan.

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