A whole-life approach to obesity

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children's Bureau

With an increasing focus on tackling obesity, what role do schools have to play? Anna Feuchtwang explains

The battle for people’s health appears to be shifting its focus: with obesity rather than smoking becoming the main concern. Schools are increasingly expected to play their part but what approach should they take? And what action is required beyond the school gates to encourage the one in five children classed as obese to enjoy better health?

Recently, a young campaigner working with the EYTO project – European Youth Tackling Obesity – hit the nail on the head: “I have always thought about healthy lifestyles only in one way – how to lose weight. Now I see that it’s more complex. It’s also about your motivation, about your emotions and your whole life.”

Making healthy choices, when surrounded by the temptations of fried chicken shops and sugar-laden energy drinks, requires children to have a level of self-control that many adults cannot muster. What is needed is, indeed, a “whole-life” approach that supports children in different ways.

This holistic approach is likely to be a feature of the government’s new Child Obesity Strategy. When health secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that his strategy would be published by the end of the year, he noted he wanted to “change the mind-set of the next generation of children and their families” and a large part of this would be through working with schools to encourage healthy lifestyles as early as possible.

Schools getting involved in this work can learn much from the EYTO approach. The project drew on the creativity of young people living in disadvantaged areas in Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic and England, as they devised their own peer-to-peer campaigns to promote healthy eating in a range of settings within their local communities, including schools.

The project found that while young people valued interventions from teachers and health professionals, the youth-led peer-to-peer approach of young people themselves developing messages and delivering campaigns on good diet and physical activity was found to be equally, if not more, effective.

But this peer pressure can rub both ways: young people participating in EYTO also said the biggest negative influence on their eating habits was being with friends who were eating junk food.

If schools are going to strengthen young people’s resolve to eat healthily, the obvious place to start is in the school canteen and the menu on offer to children. The EYTO young people identified the lack of healthy food available within school as being an important factor in deterring them from making healthy choices.

Luckily in England, the new School Food Standards, introduced in January, mean schools have a duty to ensure school food is healthy, balanced and nutritious to help children develop healthy eating habits. But outside school, the marketing of junk food at children goes largely unchecked with young people tempted by aggressively advertised snacks packed with fat, sugar and salt. The World Health Organisation warned in September that young people growing up in Europe today may have a shorter life expectancy than their grandparents, due in part to growing levels of obesity. They went as far as to recommend that a “sugar tax” be levied on junk food.

While Mr Hunt’s strategy is unlikely to include a sugar tax, it should go further than simply piling further expectations on schools to address public health issues. The EYTO young people were clear that solving the problem of obesity is a wider challenge than one of education.

Communities, food manufacturers and retailers, schools, parents and policy-makers must work collaboratively to change the range of foods and drinks available in different settings, and to give individuals the knowledge and skills to make healthier choices. Crucially, campaigns aimed at reducing childhood obesity should involve young people as co-creators.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

Further information

For details about EYTO, visit www.eyto.org.uk


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