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Leeds Beckett experts challenge publication of government’s childhood obesity strategy


As obesity continues to develop into a major global health epidemic, with one-in-four adults considered obese, it remains one of the most serious challenges facing society in the 21st century, with significant health, social and economic consequences. Today the government has published its childhood obesity strategy, designed to tackle obesity and improve the nation’s health.

The plan focuses on encouraging industry to cut the amount of sugar in food and drinks and encouraging primary school children to eat more healthily and stay active.

Paul Gately, Professor of Exercise & Obesity at Leeds Beckett and founder of weight management provider, MoreLife said: “Whilst I welcome the publication of this strategy, it clearly doesn’t go far enough. To put it into context diabetes costs the NHS about £7.7 billion a year and they invest around £2.2 billion.; Obesity however costs the NHS £6.1 billion, yet the investment is only around £30 million! This stark difference is so significant and for me, this is a strategy of inaction, not action.

“What I find frustrating is that this strategy writes off one in three of our children already; there is not one mention about the third of our children that will die young because of their weight.  What it does talk about is food and activity, but what it fails to address is that drive to those behaviours – mental health, social factors and economic factors.  These children’s parents live within a cultural environment that drives obesity, which government has a responsibility for and has not done that through this document and has not delivered on its responsibility.

“I would have liked to have seen much more aggressive engagement with industry, nudging them much further with these agendas. This strategy focuses largely on one nutrient, sugar, when we know that fat and protein also contribute to energy, which in turn contributes to obesity.”

With one of the key strands of the strategy focusing on daily exercise for school children, Jim McKenna, Professor of Physical Activity & Health at Leeds Beckett added: “Today's report seems to 'cherry pick' from among the 100+ influences on childhood obesity. In effect this is endorsing a 'magic bullet' approach, whereas the evidence of what really works for system-wide change is to integrate action across a wide array of fronts.

In post-austerity Britain, it also makes sense to pursue the creation of a society-wide acceptance that health is everyone's concerns. The term 'health system' summarises that. 'Health care system' is different; that's when doctors and nurses get involved.  Today’s report suggests that the government believes in taking a different trajectory.

“Leaving the challenge of increasing physical activity to 'schools' seems to be a major shortcoming.  With no obvious mechanisms for influencing parental physical activity opportunities, it is hard to see how attempts to cram more into the already overburdened school day will meet with much success. Worse, we already know that teachers are under-prepared for supporting PA during lessons or pupils' break times. Primary and Junior school teachers receive derisory amounts of training in their UG courses about how to deliver active lessons, let alone proper PE lessons. Equally, the health 'quality' of their own lifestyles can leave a lot to be desired; I doubt that many teachers in these schools meet the current recommendations for adult physical activity, let alone the hour/per day recommendation promoted for children. Setting aside any stereotypes this may imply, a non-academic colleague recently commented provocatively on the futility of leaving childrens' physical futures in the hands of 'portly ladies in twin sets and pearls!

“Then we have the challenge of farming out the physical provision of ‘sport’ to professional sports coaches. Local level intelligence from around the country suggests the deep disappointment and dissatisfaction this has produced for the most inactive pupils. Professional coaches might be good at spotting ‘talent’; few have the skills or aptitudes to excite and energise low skilled boys and girls.”

Pinki Sahota, Professor of Nutrition & Childhood Obesity at Leeds Beckett and chair of the Association for the Study of Obesity added: “I welcome the government’s childhood obesity plan aimed to address this major public health crisis. Whilst the actions identified in the plan are relevant, I feel that the plan lacks the ambitious and coherent actions required to support healthier behaviours in the prevention and treatment of child obesity. The plan lacks bold actions that are needed to reverse the current high levels of child obesity such as e.g. a ban on junk food advertising before the 9.00pm watershed; reduction in portion sizes; reformulation targets for industry that address of high energy density foods; investment to increase and extend evidence-based child weight management services.”

Research and enterprise activity led by health experts at Leeds Beckett is currently exploring potential solutions to the obesity crisis.

In 2015, Leeds Beckett was commissioned by Public Health England, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Public Health to lead a programme in collaboration with Local Government, to identify ways in which local authorities can create a whole systems approach in tackling obesity.

The three-year Whole Systems Obesity programme, aims to enable local authorities to make a major step change in their ability to tackle obesity through a more coordinated approach. Previous research has suggested that only by taking a whole systems approach – linking a whole range of sectors and influences including planning, housing, transport, children’s and adult’s services, business and health - can local authorities make significant inroads into tackling obesity and improve quality of life, save money and create sustained prosperity for local areas.

The team, drawn from all areas of the University, is currently working closely alongside a number of pilot local authorities to understand their perspectives and the realities for local government, to capture best practice, work collaboratively to overcome challenges, and co-produce new and innovative approaches that reflect what really matters to local authorities in using the latest thinking and making it work in practice for local people.  The Leeds Beckett team and the pilot local authorities will then create a process and develop a roadmap and practical strategies for local authorities to apply in practice, in order to address the current high levels of obesity.

Speaking about the programme, Pinki Sahota, Professor of Nutrition & Childhood Obesity at Leeds Beckett, said: “Obesity is a major global health crisis and tackling obesity is a complex and multifaceted problem. Local Authorities are investing great efforts into tackling these issues but clearly they are enthusiastic to do more and gain the benefits that come from a healthier population.  All the evidence shows that if we can link together many of the influencing factors on obesity by coordinating action and integration across multiple sectors, including health, social care, planning, housing, transport and business, then we can bring about major change to combating obesity, making better use of resources and improving wellbeing and prosperity.”

Paul Gately, Professor of Exercise & Obesity at Leeds Beckett, added: “Our University has been at the forefront of understanding the issues involved in tackling obesity and finding solutions for over 20 years.  We have found that part of the problem is after we successfully support people to lose weight they still have to function in an external environment which is full of pressures and challenges. By changing the external environment through a whole systems approach, local authorities can make it easier for individuals to reach a healthy weight and keep surplus weight off.

In December 2015, it was announced that Leeds Beckett had been awarded a five year contract with a potential four year extension, worth £18.3 million, by Suffolk’s public health team for a new integrated healthy lifestyles service, in partnership with MoreLife, Quit 51 and Healthier Free Futures. The new service, OneLife Suffolk, is being delivered across the whole of Suffolk and will incorporate some new services together with a broad range of existing provision.

The aim of OneLife Suffolk is to help people in the county to live healthier lives and reduce their risk of early death and reduced quality of life associated with unhealthy behaviours. By providing programmes and targeted support, the service aims to help individuals to reduce the risks associated with tobacco smoking, high blood pressure, obesity, and physical inactivity.

Leeds Beckett is delivering services for the authority including health promotion and messaging, children, young people’s and adult weight management, specialist behaviour change, support to increase physical activity, tobacco use prevention, harm reduction and cessation, NHS Health Checks outreach and screening of high risk groups for cardiovascular risk factors.

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