The TV chef and activist bemoaned the UK’s lack of progress on an issue which has been getting rapidly worse. The new report highlighted that London has the highest rate of childhood obesity of any peer global city, higher than New York, Sydney, Paris or Hong Kong.
“It’s simply unacceptable that three in 10 kids in deprived areas in the UK are obese,” said Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity CEO Kieron Boyle, speaking to Apolitical at the launch. This statistic comes from children in Year 6 (aged 10-11), and compares to one in 10 kids in the least deprived areas, a “deprivation gap” in childhood obesity which has increased by more than 50% in just a decade.
“We’re making these decisions in a very automatic way; our brain does it on autopilot”
For a long time, the conventional narrative has suggested that childhood obesity is caused by parents’ individual choices. However, what children eat is very much determined by their surroundings. “Behavioural science tells us that when we exist in conditions of scarcity, we often struggle to make healthier choices,” Boyle said. “We probably need to be more sympathetic to that: how to design the environment in ways which make the healthy thing the easy thing.”
This point was underlined by David Halpern, Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team. “We’re making these decisions in a very automatic way; our brain does it on autopilot,” said Halpern. “Our lifestyle and environment are really what are driving these choices.”
As a result, it’s up to policymakers to help people make healthier choices, Halpern explained: “how can we use planning tools at a local level to determine what’s on the high-street level?” And such changes don’t have to harm businesses. For example, thanks to the UK’s sugar tax, Coca Cola dramatically cut the sugar content in some of drinks in 2017 without harming sales, a whole year before the tax was actually due to come into effect.
Working with young families is particularly important, as one in ten children start school obese. “It is so important to intervene early,” Boyle said to Apolitical, “not just because you’re trying to prevent things happening, but also the evidence is very clear that once you lose some of that ground, you never really make it back up.”
“Protecting child health has never had a currency in the vote – and that has to change”
“I think we don’t do a good job at identifying women who are overweight and obese at pregnancy,” added Kevin Fenton, Director of Health and Wellbeing at Southwark Council. “We still have a lot to do in promoting pregnancy and early education: how we maximise what we do with the family in those early years.”
One of the biggest problems in the fight against childhood obesity is the short terms of politicians and business leaders, when significant changes to childhood obesity do not happen overnight. “When the average CEO, CFO or minister is three or four years, we have to make it personal,” said Oliver. “In all the elections we’ve had, protecting child health has never had a currency in the vote – and that has to change.”
“I would love to see child health put across every single department in government,” he said, pointing out the desperate need for effective collaboration, including in the media. One relatively easy technical solution, Oliver suggested, might be to have more full-time nutritionists employed in newspapers to distribute the right information.
Working with business
Whatever governments and journalists do, though, the involvement of the private sector will be key. Retailers are well aware of changes in consumer habits, but the right policies are needed to make sure everyone’s on the same page.
“Two-thirds of our shoppers want us to help them to lead healthier lives,” said Tim Smith, an advisor at Tesco, who’ve given 35 million pieces of fruit to parents with children. However, he warned, “you have to persuade other businesses to do the same in the same places.”
Along with conducting research, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity are identifying partners to deliver interventions which can encourage healthy eating. For example, Boyle pointed to the work the Alexandra Rose Charity, who have been supporting 700 low-income families around the UK since 2014 with fruit and veg vouchers to spend at participating shops. Focussing on early intervention, they prioritise families with young children by giving the vouchers in childcare centres. As a result, 95% of the families reported improved health and wellbeing.
“The prize for Britain to show that we can do this is massive”
“Our local neighbourhoods in south London look very similar to inner-city environments around the UK and around the world,” said Boyle. A place-based charitable arm of the famous hospitals, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity want their work in Lambeth and Southwark to demonstrate what can be done to defeat childhood obesity, and provide a model for elsewhere.
“The prize for Britain to show that we can do this is massive,” said Oliver. “This is a global problem and everybody’s looking at each other.”
(Picture credit: Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity)