(Image credit: CroMary/Shutterstock)

Childhood obesity is an undeniably complex and challenging issue for the government. In England 22% of children are overweight or obese when they start primary school, and the UK has one of the highest proportions of overweight and obese children in the EU. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent proposed measures to combat obesity are encouraging though, and despite some criticisms have been widely commended. But will the proposals have a discernibly significant impact on our day-to-day lives? If they are implemented, the outcomes for parents and children could be very positive.

The proposals form part of the government’s Childhood Obesity Pla, and the Department of Health’s objective is clear: to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030. This means reducing the number of obese children in England by 700,000. It is a welcome target, especially as increased rates of type 2 diabetes are being diagnosed among children.

For now, the recommendations are simply proposals – the Department of Health and Social Care will discuss them later in the year – but they have received backing from the likes of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. By contrast, Action on Sugar asserted that the proposals “lack firm commitment”.

The cornerstone of the government’s Childhood Obesity Plan remains the sugar tax, which came into effect earlier this year, but the new proposals go further and tackle several other facets of day-to-day life which enable unhealthy lifestyle choices. Should the proposals come into effect, they will encourage better processes for families to eat healthier and be exposed to less on-the-nose marketing of high-sugar products.

Crackdown on sweets

One measure that could prove particularly influential is the prospective banning of the sale of sweets and high-calorie snacks at shop entrances, checkouts and in multipack deals, such as buy-one-get-one-free.

As a parent, shopping with kids isn’t straightforward, especially when bags of chocolate are located at the end of supermarket aisles with enlarged bold “Now £1” labelling in toe. This proposal will hopefully mean parents are spared their children’s additional pleas for “discounted” chocolate, and customers are no longer confronted with a wall of sweets and sugary drinks upon entering a supermarket.

Of course, the proposal doesn’t mean that supermarkets will be devoid of sweet foods, but considering how often people can be tempted to acquiesce to discounted sweet foods, restricting brazen advertising is important.

Thankfully, many supermarkets including Aldi, Co-op and Tesco do not stock sweets at checkouts, while Sainsbury’s and Aldi do not run multi-buy promotions.

Banning energy drink sales to kids

Some sugary energy drinks can contain as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, so it’s not surprising that ending the sale of energy drinks containing high caffeine levels to under-16s has been proposed.

Given the prevalence of sugar drink consumption among children – soft drinks are responsible for 30% of the sugar intake of children aged 4-10, and 40% of those aged 11-18 – it is a proposal which could have a major impact in limiting children’s access to easy sugar fixes.

Ending the sale of energy drinks containing high caffeine levels to under-16s has been proposed

The proposal builds upon a decision made among supermarkets in March to ask customers to prove they are over 16 before buying energy drinks[1], and could extend to all retailers if passed.

Some commentators on social media have questioned why the ban hasn’t been extended to adults, and it’s a valid point. However, a blanket ban would put energy drinks into a legal category beyond cigarettes and alcohol, and into a similar level as recreational drugs. It’s a complex suggestion that ultimately asks whether we as adults can or should be trusted to choose which drinks we consume.

Ad blockers

The government will also consider introducing new rules restricting advertising of unhealthy food to children on TV and online. Campaigners have long called for a pre-9pm ban of junk food adverts, and there is understandable relief that this will be discussed. The Children’s Food Campaign is among the organisations which have backed the proposal.

Current rules dictate that junk food ads cannot appear during programmes targeted for children, but these restrictions don’t extend to family shows. The new proposals, if agreed, will apply to TV and all online platforms, including Google, YouTube and social networks.

How much of a positive step could this be? For parents, evenings spent watching X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent or a non-reality TV show with their children could be spent without being told by their kids: “But that advert said that new chocolate spread is great!”, and that is a decidedly good thing.

Earlier this year, MPs from the Health Select Committee called for a ban on cartoon characters appearing on unhealthy food. The committee also reinforced its call for a pre-9pm watershed ban on junk food adverts.

Calorie counting on menus

In a slightly more controversial proposal, restaurants, cafes and takeaways could be required to list “clear, consistent calorie labelling” of their meals. Not only is there is uncertainty regarding how this would be enforced, but also whether doing so would have a tangibly negative impact on certain restaurants’ existence.

All big restaurant chains would need to clearly label calorie content. But Mr Hunt has since clarified that possible exemptions could be made for smaller businesses, and this could be important. A blanket rule would likely hurt small restaurants, leading to less choice for consumers. Additionally, it has not been explained whether restaurants would be expected to pay an outside nutritionist to assess their meals, or whether in-house staff would be required to perform this.

Mr Hunt has since clarified that possible exemptions could be made for smaller businesses

Understandably, there is the argument that calorie labelling could take the fun out of dining. Eating out is a luxury for many people, and being presented with the cold reality of each meal’s make-up could be off-putting.

But some diners on social media welcomed the announcement. And for people monitoring their food intake, this could be a welcome move. Moreover, being able to review how many calories are in a meal will likely dissuade restauranteurs from certain meals, encouraging them to opt for healthier choices.

The Daily Mile

Physical activity too features in the proposals. Specifically, the government will discuss asking every primary school to introduce the “Daily Mile” – an initiative where pupils would run for 15 minutes, on top of regular PE sessions.

It is hoped the proposal would encourage young children to be more active, with schools implementing daily running sessions and emphasising the benefits of walking and cycling to school.

Now we wait

It remains to be seen whether the proposals get introduced in their existing form or some altered state. But the government has seemingly learnt from criticism of its 2016 Childhood Obesity Plan – criticised for being “weak” and “embarrassing” – and is ready to tackle some of the nation’s biggest health obstacles head-on.

Additional directives such as “helping to close the deprivation gap” – to understand why children from poorer areas are more than twice as likely to be overweight – demonstrate the wide-ranging nature of the proposals and indicates just how much needs to be done to improve our children’s health.

Tackling childhood obesity is no mean feat, and while there could yet be obstacles along the way, the fact these conversations are happening is reassuring. Now we wait to see whether they are approved.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/05/uk-supermarkets-ban-sales-energy-drinks-under-16s


Get our free newsletters

Stay up to date with the latest news, research and breakthroughs.