What can we do about childhood obesity?

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Weight is a big deal to us, and it’s an issue which the newspapers always go back to. We all worked out our BMI a long, long time ago in our school science lessons. “Five-a-day” has been so strongly imprinted on our minds that this somewhat ambitious rule is ever present whenever we buy an apple. Yet we appear to have stumbled upon a childhood obesity crisis, which may lead to higher proportions of people developing type two diabetes and heart disease in the future. In May 2012, alarming headlines such as “fire crews demolish walls to release Britain’s fattest teen from house” were in circulation. Although this was very definitely an isolated incident, it does raise questions about the extent of the problem and what the most workable solution would be.

Obesity in young people is possibly more alarming given that this is the time where it is socially acceptable to run around at break time and that it’s the period in your life when your metabolism is at its most effective.  The NHS claims: “for children attending reception class (aged four to five years old) during 2011-12, 9.5% were obese.”  Similarly, the Health and Social Care Information Centre claims that: “the percentage of final year primary school children (generally aged ten to eleven) who were overweight or obese increased to 33.9% in 2011/12, up from 33.4% in the previous year.”  This is such a high proportion that it does seem quite farfetched.  As a result of research in the last few years, some campaigners have called for obesity to be viewed in the 21st century in the same way that smoking was treated in the 20th century.

The rise in hospital admissions due to child obesity has also been very significant.  In 2009, almost 4,000 young people required hospital care for health problems which were complicated by being overweight.  In comparison, in 2000, there were 872.  The NHS offers its diagnosis of why there is such a “crisis.”  Firstly, they blame the “easy access to cheap, high-energy food that is often aggressively marketed to people.”  Secondly, they point to the less active lifestyles people now have because they work more, as well as the rise of TV, the internet, Xbox and so on, which all mean that people sit down for hours on end.  Finally, they believe that the use of public transport and cars is putting people off walking to places. 

However, it would be ignorant to believe that this “obesity crisis” is wholly down to the 21st century lifestyle.  If this was the case, we would all be obese, but we aren’t.  In fact, being fit is very definitely encouraged now.  It’s a rare day on Twitter if I don’t see at least one person posting a picture of their fruit salad, workout clothes or something about their morning run.  Many instead point the finger at the parents of overweight children, believing that they do not do enough to ensure that their children are active and eat well, as they are so young they do not appreciate the importance of looking after themselves.  Recently, it has been reported that in response to this “pester power” and growing fears over childhood obesity, Lidl supermarkets have removed sweets from their checkouts, replacing them with healthier options such as fruit and oatcakes.

Most agree that the root of childhood obesity is a combination of these factors.  However, the methods of dealing with the “crisis” are far reaching and, at times, controversial.  Most are familiar with the campaigns promoting healthy eating in young people which are distributed in schools in particular.  However, more drastic measures have also been taken.  The BBC reported in 2012 that “the question of whether extreme obesity is a child protection issue is a sensitive subject, but one which is gaining traction with some health and social care professionals.”  The Sunday Express has also claimed that in 2013, five children were taken into care because they were dangerously overweight.  Some doctors have also suggested that they struggle to talk about a child’s weight to parents and some parents struggle to hear it.  However, doctors and parents should behave in a way that is in the child’s best interest and that is not by turning a blind eye to the problem. We need to be open and active about this worrying issue.

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