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NHS must play its part in tackling record levels of childhood obesity

Levels of severe obesity in children aged 10 to 11 years have reached the highest point since records began, according to figures published this week by Public Health England (PHE).


Analysis of the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) between 2006 to 2007 and 2016 to 2017 details trends in severe obesity for the first time. The programme captures the height and weight of over one million children in Reception (aged 4 to 5 years) and Year 6 (aged 10 to 11 years) in school each year.


The findings also show stark health inequalities continue to widen. The prevalence of excess weight, obesity, overweight and severe obesity are higher in the most deprived areas compared to the least deprived – this is happening at a faster rate in Year 6 than Reception.


Other observations include:

* Upward trend of excess weight, obesity and severe obesity in Year 6 children

* Downward trend of excess weight, overweight, obesity and severe obesity in Reception age boys

* Downward trend of underweight in Reception age boys and girls, and Year 6 girls


The Department of Health and Social Care recently announced the second chapter of its Childhood Obesity Plan to help halve childhood obesity by 2030. Main actions include mandatory calorie labelling on menus; and restrictions on price promotions on foods high in fat, salt or sugar. These measures will go out for consultation later in 2018.


The introduction from the Prime Minister says the actions proposed in this second chapter will support the renewed focus on the prevention of ill-health, which NHS leaders have been asked to develop as a critical part of the long-term plan for the NHS.


It is recognised that the NHS has an important role to play in tackling childhood obesity at a local and national level. NHS England’s Healthy New Towns programme is a preventative initiative that involves over 50,000 homes. It is using the environment to incentivise physical activity for children, through digital innovation and healthy routes for walking and cycling. Action to create healthier environments in NHS premises by restricting the sale of unhealthy food and drinks has also seen positive results, including a 45% reduction of sugary drink sales in 2017.


The wider public sector is now being called on to join the NHS and lead by example to ensure a healthy food environment for all children and parents whilst on their premises. One of the ways of achieving this is by adhering to the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services (GBSF). These are mandatory for central government buildings and hospitals and the wider public sector, such as leisure centres and schools are encouraged to use them. The Second Chapter confirms a consultation on plans to strengthen the nutrition standards in the GBSF will be held before the end of 2018. The proposal is to bring them into line with the latest scientific dietary advice.


Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE, says: “The rise in severe obesity 

and widening health inequalities highlight why bold measures are needed to tackle this threat to our children’s health. These trends are extremely worrying and have been decades in the making – reversing them will not happen overnight.”


However, in a blog for the Nuffield Trust, Dr Rakhee Shah, a Paediatric Registrar and Research Assistant at the Association for Young People’s Health says that although the Second Chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan is bolder than the first, there are still some gaps and missed opportunities. Specifically, she says: “No new action has been taken on the use of cartoon characters to advertise unhealthy food products and there is nothing about advertising unhealthy food on billboards near schools.”


Dr Shah concludes that more clarity and ambition is needed.


As part of its work to reduce childhood obesity, PHE is working with the food industry to cut 20% of sugar from everyday products by 2020, and 20% of calories by 2024.