Storing up a crisis: urgent action needed on childhood obesity

A group of teenage girls sitting on a sofa eating snacks

Evidence shows that children living with overweight and obesity now risk serious life-limiting and life-threatening health problems later in life. What’s being done?

Childhood obesity in the UK doesn’t seem to be improving according to the 2022 National Child Measurement programme.

The latest results from the programme revealed that in England during 2021-2022, 10% of children aged 4-5 were living with obesity, alongside 12% living with overweight. Worryingly, overweight and obesity has increased in older children – of those aged 10-11, 23% were living with obesity and 14% living with overweight.

Overweight and obesity is now at record levels in the UK and indeed globally and it’s a problem that can start early in life.  Overweight and obesity in children can track into adulthood and store up problems for the future. For example, cancer rates are projected to reach 26 million new cases by 2030 and obesity is a key factor driving this increase.Dr. Kate Allen, Science and Policy Advisor of World Cancer Research Fund International

The cause for concern

The number of children living with overweight at reception age (4-5 years) is mostly likely to double by the time children reach year 6.

Children living with overweight, and obesity are at an increased risk of developing preventable cancers later in life, as well as an array of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes.

Cancer and other obesity-related NCDs have a great impact on life expectancy, but also social and economic consequences. Further, every year the National Child measurement data has shown that those living in the most deprived areas are affected by obesity far greater than those living in the least deprived.

Some of the most deprived areas of England for example, have a prevalence twice that of those in the least deprived areas living with obesity.

For those in reception and year 6 living with obesity, the gap widens even further by up to 4 times for each group respectively. These inequalities can continue later in life, as these children will be more likely to develop NCDs later on.

What we can do about the issue

While repeated childhood obesity strategies have been produced by the English government (14 to be exact), their implementation has been shown to be insufficient.

The most recent obesity strategy in England, released in 2020, risks suffering the same fate. Of the 5 key measures proposed in the 2020 obesity strategy, only one has been implemented, the requirement of large out-of-home food businesses to add calories to the food they sell.

Two of the measures, restricting high fat, salt, sugar products through volume promotions (such as buy one get one free) and in locations (online and in store) have been delayed until late 2023.

One of the measures, the ban of advertising high fat, salt, sugar foods on TV and online post 9pm has been delayed by over a year and a half, until the end of 2025.

At World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF International), we believe it is vital that governments  act now on childhood obesity rather than try to deal with an even bigger crisis in 2 decades’ time. WCRF International were pleased to attend the Obesity Health Alliance’s parliamentary reception in May, where they published a manifesto calling on politicians to take action.

The Obesity Health Alliance’s manifesto has three calls to action:

  • 1. Greater prioritisation of children’s health through renewing existing commitments on halving childhood obesity, following through with advertising restrictions on TV and online for children in junk food advertising and reducing health inequalities.

Obesity Health Alliance ran a YouGov national polling survey which revealed that 80% of UK adults support the Government banning advertising of unhealthy food on TV (79%) and online (81%) to kids and 68% of UK adults would support an industry levy being extended beyond soft drinks if the money supported children’s food and health initiatives. This proposes that the British public want action on creating healthier environments for children.

Our Policy team has been looking at the design of policies in the UK and across Europe as part of our work on the NOURISHING policy index. They confirmed that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales all came up short on restricting the marketing of unhealthy food to children.

  • 2. Our food system needs to be redesigned with greater action on fiscal measures that incentivise the food industry to sell healthier food and drink options with government investing the revenue from fiscal measures such as the Soft Drink Industry Levy to improve children’s health.

The UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy is a tax on soft drinks, introduced 5 years ago, that encourages manufacturers to cut the amount of sugar in the drinks they sell. It’s a model for other countries in how to design soda taxes, but the levy alone is not enough.

As well as tackling unhealthy food through taxes, policy is needed to make healthy foods more affordable (eg, through subsidies).

  • 3. Children have the right to grow up healthily, yet many communities lack the powers and resources to do so, especially those from deprived areas. Therefore, planning laws should be updated so local authorities are given more power, for example to increase the number of healthy food and drink options.

The supply chain is how food reaches us, from field or factory to shop. This might mean making it easier for a local council to deny planning applications for fast food restaurants or making it easier for local groups to grow fruit and vegetables in communal areas.

Our NOURISHING policy index results found that all home nations consistently received a low assessment in this area alongside policies to support healthy retail and food environments.

Today we have written to the potential next Prime Minister of the country with a simple request to put children’s health first, address Britain’s obesity crisis and redesign a broken food system that puts profit before health. Luckily there are already policies such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy that have proven to be effective so all that is required now is to build on this success.

As individuals we deserve to have more control over the food and drink that’s available and marketed to us and the next government should lead on child health.Katharine Jenner, Director of the Obesity Health Alliance

The future is not bleak if the work is done

Slow progress has been made in the UK on childhood obesity through actions such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, which was associated with reducing obesity in Year 6 girls, but this is not enough. The government need to act on more structural policies, such as introducing measures on food and drink availability within the vicinity of schools and planning restrictions on food service outlets alongside improving nutrition standards for public procurement which in turn create healthier environments.

No single policy will solve the childhood obesity crisis in the UK – and at World Cancer Research Fund International we firmly believe it is a crisis – and action on a range of nutrition and physical activity policies is desperately needed by those with the power to make changes.

Greater action is needed to turn the tide on childhood obesity once and for all. Our recent work on nutrition and physical activity polices in Europe didn’t just look at what countries are doing. It came up with an “aspirational standard” of what all countries should be trying to achieve to reduce childhood obesity.

At WCRF International, we support Obesity Health Alliances manifesto making child health a priority. WCRF International  developed nutrition and physical activity policy snapshots for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and 26 other European countries to show governments where they need.

Jennifer O’Mara is our Policy and Public Affairs Officer. She’s an expert on nutrition policy in Europe and recently attended the Obesity Health Alliance – of which World Cancer Research Fund International is a member – parliamentary reception in London.