RCPCH calls on government to take more action to support rising childhood obesity

On Monday 10 January, the Department of Health and Social Care in England launched a new campaign with the aim of encouraging parents to make ‘healthier choices’ when shopping for household groceries by using a new NHS Food Scanner App feature offering healthier alternatives.

The campaign follows a record rise in obesity amongst children since the start of the pandemic, with latest data highlighting that one in four (27.7%) children of reception school age are overweight or obese; this rises to 4 in 10 (40.9%) in Year 6 (ages 10-11). Evidence shows that families purchased more food during lockdowns and this remained above normal levels even once lockdowns ended.

In response Dr Camilla Kingdon, President of RCPCH said:

Pre-pandemic childhood obesity was one of the biggest public health issues facing the UK, and this has only intensified as data shows rates of childhood obesity are on the rise. Obesity increases the risk of developing a range of health conditions in childhood in later life, including heart disease; stroke; high blood pressure; diabetes and some cancers.

There is a strong link between deprivation and obesity, and we hear from our members all too frequently about the detrimental impact of poverty on children’s health. In 2020/21, obesity prevalence was over twice as high for children living in the most deprived areas (20.3%) than for children living in the least deprived areas (7.8%).

For government to achieve its aim of reducing childhood obesity by half in 2030, it is crucial to take serious, targeted action now. The current campaign focus to support parents make ‘healthier food choices’ is important and welcome but it will not be effective in isolation and needs to be part of a bigger package of support. This should include policy thinking on the obesogenic environment – the role the environmental factors play when determining both nutrition and physical activity, such as access to play and open spaces, restrictions on advertising high fat, salt and sugar foods, as well as education around nutrition and healthy weight.

The hard truth is that healthier choices are, more often than not, more expensive, and as the cost of living crisis grows among families, they will increasingly be faced with a choice between unhealthy food and unaffordable food. As prices go up, many families will be severely impacted, and for many there may no longer be a choice between healthier food options, but between heating and eating. Ultimately, healthier choices need to be affordable to tackle obesity and improve health outcomes.

Government must take action now to support all our children and young people by launching a fully funded and cross-departmental child health and wellbeing strategy, that considers the full impact of the pandemic as well as inequalities, poverty, geographies and families. This is the only way to ensure no child is left behind.

What do children and young people say?

When we asked children and young people what keeps them ‘healthy, happy and well’ for Voice Matters in 2020, we received 630 responses from across the UK that food and drink was the most important factor and 803 responses said having access to exercise, hobbies and extra curricular activities was most important (responses taken from 646 children and young people).

You will need to be given access to free good food, lessons for everyone to know how to cook well (and when you don’t have lots of money or live somewhere like a hostel with one electric ring to cook on) and to be given the chance to do free activities that don’t need lots of equipment.

We think that it should be made harder to eat bad foods, it should be more expensive and not so close to school. There should be healthy weight checks when you are in secondary school too, but done in the right way and without any judgement but with lots of support.