New figures provide food for thought about obesity in children

Earlier this month  The Chronicle featured an article about childhood obesity rates in Essex rising in 10 to 11 year olds from 16.7 per cent in 2015 to 17.1 per cent this year.

It’s important to add that the article highlighted the fact this was the first time it had risen in five years and that the figures also revealed that obesity levels in 4 to 5 year olds had dropped – albeit only from 8.1 per cent to 8 per cent.

The two figures together tell a rather compelling story. The fact that twice as many youngsters are obese by the time they hit double figures (in terms of age) compared to where they are at 4 or 5 shows just how vital it is to tackle this issue at a very young age.

Children need to recognise the value in exercise and the need to consider what they eat as early as possible to prevent them developing bad habits and ‘sleepwalking’ into obesity.

We know that when childhood obesity continues into adulthood it can often lead to lifelong medical problems, so this is about more than just body image and whether kids are being teased at school. The cost to the NHS – and by extension me and you as taxpayers – as a result of issues associated with obesity is enormous.

So what’s the solution? Well it’s easy to blame the usual suspects: kids kicking a virtual ball around via their games console, rather than the real thing; fast food becoming all the more readily available on our high streets; mums and dads driving their children to school rather than allowing them to walk or cycle.

There’s no doubt these factors do contribute to the problem, but actually the roots are probably less straightforward than may appear. It is about the overall relationship that people have with food and exercise and how that encourages behaviours that we know can lead to problems in later life.

The simple equation of calories consumed against those ‘burnt’ through physical activity is of course right, but the question is why people struggle to strike the right balance and how their lives militate against that.

At Healthwatch Essex we believe it is important to try to gain an insight into how young people and families feel about nutrition and exercise, so that public authorities (working with families and communities) can develop appropriate responses. To that end we recently carried out our ‘Food culture study’.

This has looked at how we decide what food to eat, what food choices to make, and what food is healthy. The study, involving parents of young children in Harlow, is looking at the social and cultural factors that affect people’s food choice and their relationship with food.

The study examined people’s personal food journeys when they went grocery shopping, helping us to better understand what influences the foods we choose to buy and eat, and the emotions and feelings evoked by different types of food. The findings of our study will feed into the development of local public health policies to help promote healthy eating in Essex.

But of course it is not just about eating habits, it is about exercise too. Which is why Healthwatch Essex is currently working with primary schools through its Lively Lives competition (supported by The Chronicle, Active Essex, Essex Healthy Schools and Essex Outdoors) to encourage and promote greater levels of physical activity in children.