Elizabeth Anderson joined Parliament Street in 2013, as is currently Head of Campaigns, having held a number of voluntary roles in the Party, and is a former local authority candidate. She coordinated Vote Leave campaigns for South East London in the 2016 referendum. She leads the executive team for a prestige charity in London, and lives in Kent.
Child Obesity is Parliament Street’s first major campaign topic for 2018. As a recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, Off the Scales highlights, one in five children enter primary school overweight or obese – and by the time they leave for secondary school, one in three is in that category. This is storing up a major health crisis if we cannot encourage healthy lifestyles at an early age.
To kick of 2018, Parliament Street held our first event to focus on this important topic, looking at solutions, which I was delighted to chair. Kindly hosted by Baroness Jenkin who opened the event, the panel was joined by former Conservative MP Ben Howlett; obesity campaigner and consultant gastroenterologist Dr Jude Oben; professor of endocrinology John Wass and health professional Helen Crighton.
One of the key calls was for a more joined up approach to education and healthcare at local level, as illustrated by recent advances in the issue in Amsterdam. Bringing together interventions can make a powerful difference to the potential health outcomes for a child. The panel felt that growingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that – especially in deprived communities – teachers are needing to fill the traditional role of the parent in looking after children. Where GPs can be aware of a child becoming overweight, and the school can be aware of the action that needs to be taken, it is much easier to ensure that positive action can be taken.
School can also be the place for children to learn positive behaviours around eating and exercise, creating lifestyle habits that can last for decades. Amongst many statistics highlighted was that our children take in more sugar than anywhere else in Europe, and this is an important factor to address.
And with obesity statistically more likely to affect those at risk of in or currently facing deprivation, panellists also highlighted the importance of ensuring that parents could access the tools that they need to create healthy lifestyles at home – going further than just education, but into ensuring that cookery skills and utensils are available.
Beyond this, our clinicians also explained that behavioural and social factors are not the only reasons around the obesity crisis. Highlighting the importance of recognising obesity as a disease, they also reminded those present that genetics are key, with 60 per cent of people holding a genetic predisposition towards obesity. The weight of a child could also be affected by the choices made by its mother during pregnancy, potentially leading to obesity in the child in later life – from taste preferences to hormonal releases affecting weight.
Whilst the focus should be on prevention of child obesity from the outset, there must also be action taken as soon as someone is recognised as overweight, whatever their age. Clinicians also highlighted that waiting until a weight issue led to other illnesses or health problems just leads to poorer outcomes for the patient, and increased NHS spending. With obesity estimated as costing at least £27 billion a year to the NHS, there is both a moral imperative and an economic one.
Joined up local government and national policy initiatives; greater promotion of healthy lifestyles and the risks associated with unhealthy weights; and ensuring that people have the knowledge and tools they need are key. Political attention is beginning to turn to tackling weight issues in children, and now is the time to continue that energy.