Fight against child obesity must start in the early years
Monday, August 10, 2020
Being overweight or obese is one of the biggest health crises the country faces.
It has a devastating impact on our physical and mental health. Almost two thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight or living with obesity – and one in three children leave primary school overweight or obese, with obesity-related illnesses costing the NHS £6 billion a year. Just imagine what we could do with those billions in early years!
This week, after our Prime Minister’s epiphany as to the consequences of being overweight, the government has unveiled its long awaited updated obesity strategy to get the nation fit and healthy, defend themselves against Covid-19 and therefore protect the NHS.
Key measures include:
- Ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm
- End of deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat
- Calories to be displayed on menus to help people make healthier choices when eating out – while alcoholic drinks could soon have to list hidden ‘liquid calories’
- PLUS a new campaign to help people lose weight, get active and eat better after Covid-19 “wake-up call”
Rather than focusing primarily on childhood obesity, the strategy represents a new focus on empowering adults to embrace a healthier lifestyle to lose weight. We will be weighed down with evidence-based tools and apps providing advice on how to reduce the waistline. Let’s hope we don’t fail! I feel the pressure chained to my screen and trying hard to avoid the bread bin. There is an even graver burden on poor families dealing with financial insecurity, low paid jobs and limited cash which has combined to add them to the high-risk obesity category. In fact, just recently the House of Lords food, poverty, health and environment committee published a report: “Hungry for change: fixing the failures in food“.
The inquiry chair, Lord Krebs said: “Problems of diet and ill-health have been staring us in the face for decades, but successive governments have done precious little about it. While this affects everyone, people in poverty either can’t afford enough to eat or have unhealthy diets. Many of Britain’s poorest families have little or no choice. They either go without food or buy unhealthy food because that’s what they can afford and get hold of. The government knows about the problem. It’s time to stop the dither and delay, endless talking and consultation, and get on with it.”
Getting fit and healthy is a no brainer, but as ever the government seems to have ignored the common-sense of early intervention. Child obesity is where it often starts and then sticks. I have blogged on this a lot in my role also as a member of the London Mayor’s Child Obesity Taskforce.
One solution which could be easily achieved would be to help us support chefs working with children to be properly taught how to cook nutritious food. So upset was I by the lack of understanding as to the influence of the chef in early years settings that I set up the LEYF Early Years Chef Academy. The best way to embed a healthy food culture for children is to train those who cook. Children’s nutritional needs are quite different to adults and it’s imperative that we get this right. Every parent wants to know that their child is getting tasty, healthy and nutritious food and they need reassurance that the standards are of the highest quality. Our chefs delight in producing a wide range of interesting seasonal food and glorious food sugarless cakes and fruit birthday cakes.
There are no consistent mandated nutritional standards specifically for early years which means some nurseries are still inadvertently adding to the obesity problem by serving meals dangerously high in fat, salt and sugar.
When we launched our Chef Academy 12 months ago, the long-term ambition was to deliver training for chefs from both LEYF and other early years providers across London and then across the UK. An official visit from the Duchess of Cambridge gave us confidence that we were doing things right. Mind you she definitely doesn’t need one of Boris’ apps.
Since then, we have tested the CACHE Level 2 qualification on six of our chefs and now they have successfully completed this so we will be inviting more chefs to join us from September.
Early years is where we embed the habits of a lifetime. It’s a lot cheaper to invest in our sector including having early years chef training academies than wait until we have a full-blown obesity crisis among our children. A kinder and cost effective approach is having our government fully committed to investing properly in keeping our children healthy and fit forever.
June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation. This blog first appeared on the LEYF website