If we don’t start taking childhood obesity seriously, Type 2 Diabetes and other diseases of adulthood will becoming increasingly prevalent in our children, warns Grub4Life’s Nigel Denby…
As the saying goes, when America sneezes, the UK catches a cold – when it comes to nutrition and health, certainly, trends in the US point to worrying developments to come this side of the Atlantic. A recent issue of Time magazine, the American news journal, revealed startling figures on childhood obesity, which should give Britain cause for alarm. It reported that now, two-thirds of young Americans are overweight or obese. By way of comparison, in the UK, almost a quarter of children are overweight or obese by the time they start school, with that figure progressively increasing as they advance through their education.
Eating food that comes from a packet or fast food restaurant is a regular routine for many families in both the US and the UK. These types of foods boast little to no nutritional value, and usually come with a hefty dose of calories, thanks to the presence of excess fat and sugar. Yet many parents are regularly giving these unhealthy foods to their children as part of their normal diet. We live in a world where we have to opt into being healthy, as 21st century life is a fast pass to being overweight. Parents, the education system, the food industry and legislators are all to blame, and all must make efforts to make changes, as overweight or obese children are more likely to become obese adults and have a high chance of disability and premature death in later life.
The Time article, which is titled ‘Young Kids, Old Bodies’, tells the stories of two young American children who are experiencing major health problems because they are overweight or obese. What’s especially alarming is that the particular health issues these children are facing are not common in young children. Due to obesity, children are developing adult diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, high cholesterol, Type 2 diabetes and fatty liver because their bodies are ageing too quickly. Many children and adolescents are being prescribed medications that are not usually intended for people under the age of 40.
This arrival of adult diseases in children has begun to hit in Britain as well. It is not a genetic problem; evolution doesn’t work quickly enough for an entire generation to suddenly start developing diseases they wouldn’t normally expect to see until they are 40 or 50 years older. It’s a social problem, and we are all involved.
As childhood obesity has become more common, our society has grown to accept fat, inactive children as normal. According to the National Child Measurement Programme, in 2012/13 almost a quarter of UK children started school classified as being overweight and nearly 10% were clinically obese. These figures rise to a third of children being overweight and almost 20% being obese at Year 6 (age 10) as highlighted in the table on the next page – a full rundown of the statistics by region and county can be found at here.
Those with an interest in safeguarding children’s health are becoming increasingly concerned. “This is a shocking reflection of the country’s health,” said Libby Dowling, care advisor at charity Diabetes UK. “The link between obesity and Type 2 diabetes is well documented. Although this is a condition usually seen in adults over the age of 40, we estimated back in 2008 there were at least 1,000 children who had it, some as young as seven years old.”
Part of the problem is that the food industry has slowly but surely had the freedom to develop products targeted at children with high levels of sugar, saturated fat and salt. The government is trying to reverse this through its Responsibility Deal and Change4life campaigns, but it’s a painfully slow process.
The media is engaged in a war against sugar right now; but while this attention helps raise the issue of high-calorie foods and drinks, it can add to parental confusion by demonising healthy foods. Fruit, breads, cereals and grains are mistakenly being grouped together with the likes of jam, sugar and fizzy drinks, which isn’t helpful at all. Instead of good and bad foods, we need to talk about good and bad diets, and healthy and unhealthy lifestyles.
This is where early years providers can make a difference. The opportunity to help shape a child’s diet and lifestyle is never greater than during the first five years of life, and for children in full-time childcare, practitioners and teachers often have a greater influence over food intake and activity than parents.
Here in the UK we legislate about the quality of food served to children in primary school, yet lawmakers are still willing to leave nursery food to chance. At grub4life.org.uk we’ve worked with hundreds of settings who have really stepped up to the plate to make sure their food and nutrition provision is suitable for the under-fives, but we know there are many thousands more out there who are lagging behind. The difference between good nutrition for a child aged three and another aged seven may appear subtle, but they are significant enough to determine whether a child is overweight or not. To have any chance of reversing the childhood obesity trend, we have to start with the very young. We know taste preferences are laid down in the first few years of life, and these are taste preferences that last for a lifetime. We need to provide support to those early years providers and parents who don’t know about healthy lifestyles, and come down tough on those who don’t care.
Nigel Denby is a chef, a registered dietician and the founder of Grub4Life.