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UK government’s handling of child obesity crisis: harmful or proactive?

Amid concerns over a pandemic-induced rise in child obesity, the UK government announced it would be implementing a variety of measures to tackle the problem.

According to the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, tackling obesity is one of the greatest challenges the country currently faces.

On an upward trajectory since the 90s, today’s reality paints a deeply troubling picture with around 63% of the entire adult population reported as being over a healthy weight.

Adding insult to injury, one in three children are now leaving primary school overweight, making the UK Europe’s child obesity capital.

Unfortunately, the pandemic has only compounded the issue.

During a nationwide lockdown that’s so far lasted well over a year, home-schooling has become commonplace and, with it, less regular exercise, the absence of a routine, and easier access to an unhealthy diet. This, unsurprisingly, has brought already concerning figures into sharper relief.

‘In years to come, the virus will be gone, we’ll have control of it, but obesity, that’s what’s going to be prolonged,’ warns consultant paediatrician Dr Naomi Simmons.

‘I fear that Covid will contribute to an exacerbation of what’s already a really significant problem.’

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Facing a rare window of opportunity to nip this in the bud before it escalates upon our official return to ‘normal life,’ the government has been quick to announce a variety of measures it’s seeking to implement over the coming months as part of its obesity strategy.

While some have been welcomed with open arms – namely a pre-9pm ban on junk food TV advertisements and the development of an app that trains the brain to ditch bad habits – one in particular has been met with sheer disapproval from the general public.

In a move that seems to disregard the equally alarming youth mental health crisis experts argue should be treated as seriously as containing the outbreak, MPs voted to reintroduce the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) after it was halted in 2020.

This means pupils aged four to eleven are to be weighed ‘regularly’ from September. Critics calling for the ‘arbitrary’ decision to be scrapped say it promotes fat-shaming and disordered eating, which has the potential to wreak havoc in later life.

The National Child Measurement Programme has been reintroduced amid fears of growing child obestity post-pandemic


So, is the strategy harmful or proactive?

Though still in its trial stages, an app that builds upon previous research suggesting cognitive training is an effective method of weight loss may well succeed among young people.

Called Restrain, it’s designed to bias the user’s thoughts and behaviours towards healthy foods and away from unhealthy foods through games.

By focusing on the psychological aspect of obesity in an interactive and non-invasive way, children will be assisted with making better choices without feeling directly targeted.

‘One of the possible advantages of such training is that it doesn’t require much time or effort,’ explains researcher Mark Randle.

‘It attempts to reprogramme a person’s relationship with food, rather than relying on willpower or requiring them to make dramatic changes to their lifestyle.’

Some of the healthy food choices

Regarding the long-awaited watershed on advertisements pushing products high in fat, sugar, and salt (alongside a total online ban from April 2022), many believe that the proposal represents a progressive step forward.

They cite a wealth of evidence demonstrating a clear link between food advertising and the food children prefer.

‘The content youngsters see can have an impact on the choices they make and the habits they form,’ said public health minister, Jo Churchill.

‘With children spending more time online, it is vital we act to protect them from unhealthy advertising.’

In supporters’ opinion, reducing children’s exposure to this incessant stream of unhealthiness (15 billion ads annually, to be exact) is finally addressing one of the major factors driving the UK’s stubbornly high obesity rates and will hopefully break the cycle.

Gen Zers Christina Adane and Dev Sharma of Bite Back’s Youth Board are to thank, for the months they spent striving to bring the campaign to fruition.

This isn’t to say that industry lobbyists aren’t fighting back, however.

The News Media Association, which oversees all national and local newspaper publishers, claims the ‘draconian’ measures will ‘harm news media publishers who rely on advertising revenue to fund journalism which keeps us all informed.’

Of course, the wellbeing of these companies is not a top priority and those in favour of the ban – including the Prime Minister himself – say that sending out a signal in the way we treat advertising is entirely right.

‘Let’s get a grip on it,’ he declared. ‘It’s one important part in building a healthier environment where the healthy option is the easy option.’

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On the flipside, restoring a policy that requires children to step on the scales and monitor the circumference of their waists before they’ve even reached adolescence is clearly deserving of the backlash.

Backlash that reflects a growing movement against the use of BMI to assess overall health due to its extremely negative impact on body image.

‘Children will talk about being weighed at school and this conversation around weight and appearance seems unnecessary,’ says Kelly Oakes, who’s launched an online petition to stop the plan in its tracks.

‘My generation is obsessed with weight and diet culture and if we can prevent that being replicated from our children that would be great.’

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Irrespective of the rise in obesity prevalence, she stresses that we mustn’t resort to shaming children into losing weight in front of their peers because this opens the door to a whole set of other issues.

Instead, Oakes recommends a more subtle approach, facilitated by parents outside a school setting, which avoids possible bullying. Another solution could be to encourage them to find sports they enjoy, which can be build into a healthy lifestyle.

Whatever the outcome, it’s vital to note that no specific strategy will reduce obesity rates singlehandedly. It’s bold yet considerate action that’s needed.

Yes, we are confronted with an important health obstacle to overcome but choosing to ignore harmful repercussions – especially involving the mental health of children – will most likely do more damage than good. That’s when proactivity goes out the window.