Maggie Throup is the Member of Parliament for Erewash, a member of the Health Select Committee and Chair of the APPG on Adult and Childhood Obesity.
English child obesity rates are up. Again. The National Child Measurement Programme released its latest figures, showing obesity rates amongst 10 and 11 year olds had risen from 19.1 percent in 2015 to 19.8 percent.
Amongst four and five year olds, it was up too – from 9.1 percent last year to 9.3 percent. It would be easy to say that the increases are small. But that misses the point.
Nearly one in five 10-11 year old is now obese. The same can be said for nearly one in ten four to five year olds. And this is the second consecutive year the figures have gone up rather than down.
That’s before we give any thought to rates of overweight amongst our children or, critically, what the National Child Measurement Programme also showed, which is that the gap between areas less affected and those where childhood obesity is more prevalent is growing.
That isn’t something that can or should be ignored. It’s terrifying. A necessary wake-up call that highlights a future many of our young people face – one that could be riddled with the complications caused by obesity, including heart disease and diabetes.
Not to mention foreshadowing the immense strain we risk putting on our public services. It is a reminder, yet again, that action is needed to prevent a public health calamity.
While it’s only a matter of months since it was published, the latest National Child Measurement Programme figures should prompt a reconsideration and review the Department of Health’s Childhood Obesity Plan.
Many, myself included, said when the plan was published that it was quite a let-down. I stand by that view – there simply wasn’t enough detail in that thirteen page document. It was aspirational rather a focused plan of action. It ignored the recommendations of Public Health England, which were endorsed by the Health Select Committee. And it didn’t set firm timescales for turning the tide on childhood obesity.
These new figures should – indeed they must – refocus the debate. The plan we have is insufficient for the scale of the task. That doesn’t mean starting over, but it means we need more. We need clear actions and timescales. We need the strategy we expected but which was delayed for so long.
What we cannot and must not have is for the discussion to denigrate into a criticism of business or a push towards the nanny state. We need to take the opportunity to find the common ground.
Yes, it is the responsibility of parents to ensure their children eat healthily, are physically active, and learn good habits that will last a lifetime. But that by itself has proven time and time again that it’s insufficient. Parents need more help and the current Childhood Obesity Plan cannot and will not give them what they need.
It would be a mistake to think the answer lies in burdensome regulation of business – namely the food and drink sector. Demonising them is both unhelpful and unfair. Some producers, manufacturers, and retailers have taken great strides in reformulating products and encouraging healthier consumer behaviour.
But just as the current plan doesn’t help parents, it does nothing for business that would be better served by clear goals for reformulation, advertising, and labelling, and time frames in which these must be achieved. Publicly and privately many businesses in the sector note that they themselves would be better served by clearer, more far-reaching Government recommendations that at least gave them a measure of certainty for the future.
We may be horrified by the National Child Measurement Programme figures, but now we need to act on them. Childhood obesity levels will not drop tomorrow, but we do need to see some sign in the next few years that they are declining. The foundations of an effective strategy are in place in the form of the Public Health England recommendations.
It’s time the Department of Health took those and added them to its plan. Then we’ll have a strategy rather than a vision.