The UK government’s long-awaited plan for action on childhood obesity is now published. It rightly highlights the scale of the problem which we face in the UK and the medium- and longer-term health, societal and economic costs which the epidemic of childhood obesity will inevitably bring if it is not addressed as a matter of urgency.
The government’s plan contains several good components, but I know that many experts in the field, many health care professionals and probably many parents will feel disappointed that it does not go far enough.
It is very surprising that the plan makes no reference to the report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) published by the World Health Organisation in January of this year, and endorsed at the World Health Assembly in May, by the UK government among others. The Commission took account of a wide range of contemporary research from many countries and consulted widely, producing a series of clear recommendations. Some of these are mirrored in the government’s plan, but several very important ones are not.
The government’s plan continues to place much responsibility on parents and children, as well as busy health care professionals and teachers. It completely ignores the importance of the life course nature of childhood obesity, a path along which many children have already started by the time they are born birth and in infancy. Even young children who are not obviously overweight or obese may be at risk in this respect.
Urgent action is needed to engage the parents of tomorrow in having a healthy lifestyle before conception, in preventing obesity and diabetes before and during pregnancy and in promoting breast feeding.
There is a real danger that the government’s plan will deliver too little, too late, and that major opportunities will have been missed.
It is good to see that the plan recognises that this is the start of a conversation on how to tackle this problem. To this end, it is important to engage all the relevant people in that conversation. As emphasised in the Chief Medical Officer’s report of last year, the health and behaviour of young people in the period before they conceive a baby is critical to a range of health issues including childhood obesity. We urgently need this group of the population to join us in preventing the problem, rather than just focussing action on treating it once it has developed in their children. Their health is their future – for them and their children – and we owe them a chance to make it better.