Recent attention has been drawn to the issue of childhood obesity this week as NHS data shows 1 in 4 children (10-11 years old) are now clinically obese. Not only is this dangerous and affects the wellbeing of children in the current moment there are also ‘devastating’ consequences for developing obesity at such a young age – including persistent health problems, risk of depression, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease at a much younger age. At a time when NHS strain is greater than ever due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, health leaders are urging to campaign and press childhood health now to prevent concomitant strains in the future for illnesses and disabilities linked to obesity for future generations. The adverse changes in child health are almost certainly a result of lockdowns and restrictions – and even poorly thought-out policies early in the pandemic such as restricting use of play areas, outdoor equipment and green spaces. The emergence of childhood obesity was accelerating in years to date, but the powerful forces of technology, cultural change, food habits and a stay-in-place lockdown have only served to stoke the fire further.
The general onset of significant cardiovascular disease and disability happens in healthy humans at least at the age of around 50-60 years old, with complications ‘saved’ for elderly years, where the incidence of related heart attacks and strokes rises significantly. The consequences of developing significant cardiovascular disease prior to middle age risks a number of children having life changing illness way before even middle age, potentially drastically altering their quality of life. At the time of reporting, the proportion of children overweight or obese was 27.7% in reception and rose to 40.9% by the end of primary school. The damning evidence suggests that almost 50% of primary school leavers are on the cusp of developing serious long term health problems from overweight and obesity. Not only is the proportion of obese children increasing, so to is the overweight bracket beneath, which will only serve to swell further if mitigations are not introduced.
Early in April 2020 at the dizzying heights of a novel pandemic, obesity was securely linked as an absolutely fundamental risk factor for COVID-19 mortality – but notably across all age groups. Health leaders and nutritionists expressed concerns for child health at the beginning of lockdowns that the restrictions could provoke a childhood obesity epidemic in the UK, with mandatory physical education being missed in school. Something long established from the available obesity literature demonstrates that although physical education at school plays a role in learning around the benefits of physical activity, the influence of parents who do not value exercise cannot be understated. It’s found that 26 and 28% of children who are obese also have an obese father or mother, and that 50% of parents with obese children think their child is a normal weight. This stark data from an NHS report demonstrates a real lack of education and awareness in the general public on just how pervasive weight issues are amongst people of all demographics.
What’s more, children from disadvantaged areas are twice as likely to have obesity than those in wealthier areas. Part of this disparity is low income which restricts the access to nutritious food for child and parent, and rather restricts choice to food which can be afforded – often the foods with poor nutritional value, high fat and high sugar. In fact, many scholars believe fast food, confectionary and junk food adverts and sales have risen throughout restrictions in the United Kingdom, with companies taking advantage to gain even more wealth and control through the pandemic. Acclaimed footballer Marcus Rashford garnered much public support in his attempts to implore the government to continue free school meals during lockdown – something which surely will have served to at least give children one meal a day with good nutritious content, something which may be missed and thus default at home to cheaper, unhealthier alternatives. Part of the drive to continue school meals during lockdown was the acknowledgment that children need good nutrition not only to grow, but to learn and stay attentive in class. This vital period of their life can be vastly disrupted by poor nutrition, infrequent meals and no real schedule or eating routine. In this cycle of poor nutrition, poor concentration, poor education and school performance, this only acts to further societal divides by negatively securing poor outcomes for future achievement, schooling, and eventual employment. The luxury of choice of nutrition that comes with middle class and upper class upbringing cannot be implicated more as a decisive factor into positive health and social outcomes for the lucky children who get access to such resources.
It was announced this week that 15 new clinics are to be setup to treat severely obese children, support their parents and provide therapy to nurture a new lifestyle going ahead, as well as treating concomitant health problems that already may be presenting in obese children (type 2 diabetes etc). Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief executive had this to say on the new clinic scheme, “Left unchecked, obesity can have other very serious consequences, ranging from diabetes to cancer. The scheme aims to prevent children and young people enduring a lifetime of ill-health”. Doting further on the risks of obesity to children in jeopardising their future, Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum sent a sobering message to health leaders, “The figures (sic) are staggering and even worse than the forum feared. For two years we have had reports of children increasingly being kept at home because of Covid restrictions, endlessly snacking on junk food on top of the amount they regularly eat at meal times, and prevented from being able to play with friends to burn off excess calories.” Despite the new clinics, national initiatives and awareness campaigns, it seems there has not yet been an intervention efficacious enough to really get to the causes of childhood obesity. This multi-faceted issue is complex and inter-generational, and something which will be battled alongside other threats to human wellbeing such as climate change and future pandemics.