Challenging the government on childhood obesity

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A University of Southampton academic has said that the UK government “missed an opportunity” to demonstrate global leadership in its action plan to tackle childhood obesity.

Mark Hanson, British Heart Foundation Professor of Cardiovascular Science, along with a number of other leaders in women’s and children’s health, criticised ‘key failings’ within the report titled Childhood Obesity: a plan for action.

In an analysis published by the British Medical Journal (BMJ) recently, they say the action plan is “severely limited”.

Mark co-chaired a working group that helped form the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO) Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity.

He says that by not referencing the Commissions work, the government’s action plan does not recognise the state of knowledge in this area and may “fall short of the mark” in addressing the problem.

The BMJ report also calls into question the approach taken in the action plan to focus on adopting measures in childhood, rather than recognising that obesity is driven by a number of biological, behavioural, environmental and commercial factors, some of which operate before birth and conception.

Mark added:

The action plan does not seem to recognise that there are many drivers operating across the lifecourse that result in childhood obesity, so intervening at primary school age may be too little too late.

The BMJ report also questions the lack of reference to social deprivation as a key factor and queries whether the emphasis on voluntary action may be strong enough to produce change.

Greater support and training to help health professionals make a positive difference to families, should also have been included in the plan, notes Mark.

We need to engage a broad spectrum of healthcare professionals, including GPs, dentists, pharmacists and social workers. They want to help, but they often do not have the time or the resources to intervene. Talking about obesity to parents and children can sometimes be quite confrontational, and this is not helped by confusion over what measures to recommend.

In response to the criticism Public Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said the WHO recommendations including: introducing a sugar levy, promotion of physical activity in schools and other measures, were contained in the plan, which was published at the end of last year.

“No other country in the world has set out such ambitious plans and six months in we are making significant progress, with many industry leaders already taking action to cut sugar in their products.” she added.

Mark, who is also the current President of the International Society for the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, said he was hopeful that improvements would be made to the action plan as it proceeds.

He said: “The plan indicates that this is just the start of a conversation. We are keen to work with policymakers in addressing this challenge. We have already had one productive meeting and we would hope to meet again to share ideas and look at some of the proposals.”

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