Pinki Sahota, Professor of Nutrition and Childhood Obesity at Leeds Beckett University.
People often want to know how I think we can solve the problem of childhood obesity. The assumption is that there’s a magic bullet; that it’s just a question of encouraging children to eat less and move more. But while the quality and quantity of food eaten along with exercise are important factors in maintaining a healthy weight for children and adults alike, the truth is that this is a very complex issue, and there is no one simple answer.
When I first became interested in obesity in the 1990s, awareness was low, and few people recognised its impact on the physical and psychological health both during childhood and adulthood. Now, although we are far more aware of the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, obesity has reached epidemic proportions, becoming one of the most serious public health crises of our time. A staggering 20% of our children will start school at four or five years of age already obese. By the time they leave primary school, this increases to 30%1 and these children are likely to remain obese into adulthood, with an elevated risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer.2 They may also develop psychological problems, as a result of low self-esteem and bullying at school.2
So, we need to act now and we need to act early. Recent steps to ban some junk food advertising in print and online media3 are encouraging although clearly more could be done. We can make a real difference to children’s futures if we start encouraging good nutrition from a very early age. Good habits that are established and ingrained when children are young are more likely to be maintained throughout life.
There is so much confusion and conflicting advice about what children should and shouldn’t eat, including how much, that parents are hard pressed to make the right choices. Add to this fussy eaters, the omnipresence of fast food restaurants, a lack of time, money and sometimes limited cooking skills to prepare food from scratch, and unhelpful food labelling and food marketing strategies that promote less healthy options and you have a situation where many parents don’t feel able or confident to feed their children correctly. What’s more, with the increasing prevalence and the perceived normalization of obesity, there is confusion around the recognition of obesity. The recently published Health Survey for England found that many parents of overweight children cannot see a problem with their weight.4
With the appropriate guidance and support, we can empower and educate parents, but we also need to empower and educate early years practitioners and childcare providers. With 96% of four and five year olds in some kind of formalised childcare5 it is imperative that nurseries and pre-schools offer healthy nutritional choices for the children in their care and encourage young children to take a more accepting approach to healthy eating. However, as childcare providers have a number of other pressures and priorities to juggle, and are not generally trained in nutrition, we need to find ways to support them in enhancing their practice.
I am very supportive of the approach being modelled by the EYN Partnership which is bringing highly qualified nutritionists and dietitians directly into nurseries and pre-schools to support early years practitioners to make positive, practical and sustainable changes in their food provision.
The fact that in the UK one in five of our 4-5yr olds UK are already obese shows that we are stacking the odds against children from a very early age when they have little control over their own health destinies. If we are to turn things around, nutrition and childcare professionals must work together, and join with parents to set our young people up for a lifetime of good health.