A third of primary school leavers are overweight or obese, and the industry needs to act now to make a change, says Alison Tedstone
Childhood obesity remains a significant public health challenge and addressing this is a government priority.
More than a third of children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school – a shocking picture of our children’s health. Not only are there potential consequences for their immediate health, it can also have serious implications for their future health too, including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes – the cost of this alone threatens to cripple the NHS.
Eating out is a big part of our lives and it’s easy to clock up the calories without realising it. The out-of-home sector has a crucial role to play in turning this tide and some businesses have shown promising commitment to reducing sugar and calories in foods and drinks.
While some businesses have shown some leadership in this space and others have signed up to a sector-led voluntary code of practice on reduction and reformulation, commitment across the sector is not widespread and deep enough. Although the government has been clear on its expectations that the programme applies equally to all sectors of the food industry, engagement with key players has resulted in a mixed response. This is unacceptable given that almost 30% of what we consume now comes from eating out, takeaways or deliveries – eating out is no longer just a ‘treat’.
The government has been unequivocal that out-of-home businesses continue to be an area for significant focus, as set out in chapter two of the Childhood Obesity Plan, including the commitment for mandatory calorie labelling to help consumers make informed decisions. We recognise the challenges some businesses are experiencing. However, parts of the sector are still in growth and it has long been time for businesses with a significant presence, who have not yet engaged, to take responsibility in tackling childhood obesity. Lack of progress to make our food and drink healthier is not good for our short- or long-term health and is not good business.
We know consumers want these changes – the survey published last year shows overwhelming public support for reducing sugar and calories. This includes the coffee and breakfast we pick up on the way to work and the sandwich we buy for lunchtime as well as the meals we enjoy eating out. Consumers also expect the government to work with the industry to achieve this – we’re all in this together.
It’s clear there is a demand for healthier food and an expectation that the industry will take responsibility and work to achieve a better balance. The UK has one of the most thriving food scenes in the world. The commitment and creativity already shown by some companies proves it is possible to drive healthier consumption while meeting commercial needs – driving healthier choices makes good business sense. We acknowledge there are challenges for businesses around consumer acceptability of some portions potentially getting smaller, although our survey suggests there is growing support for this too.
With severe obesity in 10- to 11-year-olds now at an all-time high, and with children’s health at stake, there can be no more excuses for failing to make the nation’s food healthier. We need to see further and speedier action.
Alison Tedstone is chief nutritionist at Public Health England