Obesity Crisis: a national problem which begins at birth

12 Aug

I        Preamble

Obesity has become a national crisis.  Increasing numbers of pregnant mothers overeat.  The expectant mother justifies doing so by kidding herself with: “Well, I am eating for two.” There is some medical evidence to suggest that the overeating impacts on the unborn child, who on arrival also tends later to overeat.  The problem often starts at birth. A tragedy.

Obesity causes diabetes, cardiovascular disease, some cancers and early death.   That apart, the obese person is impeded from living a normal life. S/he walks slower, has problems breathing, spends more on larger-sized clothes and shoes, takes up considerable seating space in public transport attracting angst from others and does not look and feel good.

Childhood obesity is linked to different health conditions such as asthma and type-2 diabetes.  It also increases cardiovascular risk factors.   Obese children suffer from mental ill-health and behavioural problems.   Worst of all, an obese child becomes and obese adult.

In 2017, a national survey revealed that 36% of the UK population was overweight and 29% obese.  In the case of men, 40% were overweight and 27% obese.  With women, 31% were overweight and 30% obese.

In 1984 fewer than 10% of five to ten-year-olds were overweight, and fewer than 2% obese. In 2017/18 more than 20% of children were overweight or obese when they began school and over 33% overweight or obese by the time they left primary school.  Obesity numbers are highest in the most deprived 10% of the population twice that of the least deprived 10%.

The poorest have become the biggest victims of obesity.  Forty years ago, a poor child was around 25% more likely to be obese than a rich one. Now, by 11 s/he is three times as likely. Marie Antoinette said of the common French person: “Let them eat cake.” Prime Minister Johnson is now saying to the manufacturers about the common man in the United Kingdom: “Let them eat sugar” – a cry that does not liberate but is a curse.

Obese children are stigmatised and bullied. This leads to low self-esteem and frequent absences.

Public Health England’s warnings about risk-factors were stark.  These include the following.

(a)        Maternal health: In 2014, 58% of women of childbearing age (16 to 44 years) in England were either overweight or obese.

(b)       Parental health: Children who live in a family where at least one parent or carer is obese are more at risk of becoming obese themselves.

In addition:

  • children who are obese are more likely to be obese in adulthood and thus increase the risk of obesity for their own children later in life and
  • poor diet and low levels of physical activity are the primary causal factors to excess weight.

The amount of sugar that children consume daily is a major contributing factor to gaining weight. A National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that sugary drinks account for 30% of 4-to-10 year olds’ daily sugar intake. Children’s consumption of added or processed sugars significantly exceeds the maximum recommended level.

Low levels of physical activity, and increased sedentary behaviours among children and young people, exacerbate the problems of poor diet and nutrition. Data across local areas in England shows only 18% of children and young people aged 5 to 16 years reported taking part in physical activity for at least 60 minutes every day. Boys are more likely than girls to meet the recommended levels, as are children from the most affluent families when compared with the least affluent families.

Cancer Research UK states that obesity now causes more cases of four common cancers – bowel, liver, ovarian and kidney – than smoking.

According to Jenni Russell of The Times, “Obesity keeps being described as a ticking time bomb but with every year the bomb gets bigger. Overweight teenagers rarely reverse their weight gain. Studies suggest four out of five obese teens will remain obese as adults. They will lose 15 to 20 years of health in adult life. Soft drinks are their biggest source of sugar.”

The cardiologist Aseem Malhotra said that one could not outrun a bad diet. The blood-sugar surges and clotted arteries caused by overloading our systems with junk food damage us at a cellular level. New studies of the microbiology of our intestines show how bad diets spawn destructive changes to our intestinal bacteria, driving food cravings and making it practically impossible for even enthusiastic dieters to lose weight.

II       Taking Action

What can a school or academy do to stem the obesity rot?

(1)        Top of my priority list would be for trustees, governors and staff members to model what it means to live a healthy live by slimming down and staying slim, being active (walk rather than use the car, if possible) and make time to take regular exercise.

(2)        Ban unhealthy foods among pupils who bring packed lunches and ensure that unhealthy snacks that many pupils bring into schools/academies for their breaks are conspicuous by their absence.

(3)        Encourage parents to sign up for the Start 4 Life information for children from 0 to 5 years.  The service provides evidence-based information on pregnancy and child health development, including messages on breastfeeding initiation and continuation and improved nutrition.

(4)        Trustees, governors, headteachers and staff can register with Change 4 Life School Zone, to receive teacher packs designed to help promote curricular-linked Personal School and Health Education (PSHE) topics. There are flexible lessons plans and engaging videos in the materials.

(5)        Schools/academies can work with the National Child Measurement Programme so that the promotion of a healthy life is part of the whole school approach.

(6)        Make use of the publication, What works in schools and colleges and ideas generated by the PE and Sport Premium.

(7)        Establish a Healthy Eating policy and better still, ensure that pupils, parents, staff, governors and trustees are using it in their day-to-day lives.

(8)        Use the toolkit for the promotion of positive emotional health and well-being so that pupils, staff, governors, parents and trustees may implement some of the good practices describe.

(9)        Make pupils aware of the support available locally for both, mental health and weight issues in Rise Above

There is fat chance that some pupils and the staff responsible for them will take any of this seriously.   This should not get those in charge of running schools and academies depressed. That is the nature of the beast.    Schools and academies can do a bit more to promote good health, a vital ingredient to happiness and longer living.

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