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UK government’s plan to tackle childhood obesity finally published – amid criticism

Sugar and childhood obesity

The long-awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy has come under fire from campaigners, health experts and even a supermarket chain amid accusations of a ‘watering down’ of the previous proposals.

Critics of the strategy argue that the publication of the long-awaited paper is the first test of new Prime Minister Theresa May, with some suggesting it is one she has failed after various measures outlined in the original draft – including restrictions on advertising and price promotions on unhealthy foods – have been dropped.

The published strategy does, however, include measures such as a 5% sugar reduction in children’s food products by manufacturers over the next 12 months, with an ultimate aim of a 20% reduction over a period of four years While these reductions are expected to be subject to monitoring by Public Health England, they will not be enforced by the government.

Physical activity

Under the new plans, primary schools will also be responsible for the provision of a minimum of 30 minutes of physical activity per day and will also be urged to actively encourage parents and families to provide a similar amount of activity at home.

There is also likely to be extra investment in sports in schools, funded by revenue from the controversial ‘sugar tax’ levy, from 2018 onwards.

Voluntary reformulation

Children's food cereals high in sugar

The sugar reduction target is expected to begin with the reformulation of products produced for children, such as breakfast cereals, cakes, biscuits, yoghurts, desserts and sweet spreads, but such reformulation is to be on a voluntary basis.

MP Dr Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the government’s Health Select Committee, described the strategy as “really disappointing” and appears to demonstrate “the hand of big industry lobbyists”.

Dr Wollaston told the BBC that Theresa May’s government had already failed to keep its promise to deal with health inequality by putting the “interests of advertising marketers ahead of the interests of children”.

Further action not ruled out

A spokeswoman at the Department of Health says: "The childhood obesity crisis has been decades in the making and it will take years to sort it. We will measure progress carefully and are not ruling out further action if results are not seen."

Reacting to the news on his Facebook page, TV chef and obesity campaigner Jamie Oliver says the plans “contain a few nice ideas, but so much is missing”. He adds: "It was set to be one of the most important health initiatives of our time, but look at the words used - 'should, might, we encourage' - too much of it is voluntary, suggestive, where are the mandatory points?"

Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury's, describes the plans as a “welcome first step” but adds: "We need a holistic approach to tackle childhood obesity, including compulsory measured targets across all nutrients - not just sugar - and mandatory traffic light labelling across all food and drink products, regardless of whether they are consumed inside or outside the home."

Tougher action needed

Tom Sanders, Professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics at King’s College London, says while he supports the plans to increase exercise in schools he believes “tougher action is needed if there is to be any meaningful impact on obesity”. He says the strategy fails to focus on how to restrict overconsumption of food energy, and suggests measures should also be taken to cut both fat and carbohydrate consumption and to reduce portion sizes.

Professor Sanders says: “It is good to encourage healthy eating but it is the quantity of food consumed rather than the quality that affects weight gain. The strategy does not explain how the intake of foods consumed on the school fringe or at home will be reduced.

Is the marketing of junk food part of the problem with obesity?

Sugar and Junk Food part of Obesity Problem

Professor Sanders adds: “Lacking are any controls on the marketing of obesogenic foods e.g. no controls on pick and mix sales of confectionery in shopping centres or the placement of high calorie snacks at checkouts and marketing of junk food in cinemas.”

Professor Mark Hanson, Director Institute of Developmental Sciences at the University of Southampton says: “The government’s plan contains several good components, but I know that many experts in the field, many health care professionals and probably many parents will feel disappointed that it does not go far enough.

Obesity problem may begin in the womb

Obesity problems starting during pregnancy

Professor Hanson adds: “The government’s plan continues to place much responsibility on parents and children, as well as busy health care professionals and teachers. It completely ignores the importance of the life course nature of childhood obesity, a path along which many children have already started by the time they are born and in infancy. Even young children who are not obviously overweight or obese may be at risk in this respect.

“Urgent action is needed to engage the parents of tomorrow in having a healthy lifestyle before conception, in preventing obesity and diabetes before and during pregnancy and in promoting breast feeding.

He warns: “There is a real danger that the government’s plan will deliver too little, too late, and that major opportunities will have been missed.

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