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The possibilities for London’s fight against child obesity

21st September 2016

London has a big problem. Levels of childhood obesity in London are unacceptably high. This can have serious complications later in life such as diabetes, heart disease  & higher risk of premature mortality, shockingly however we are now seeing such problems in young adults too.  We cannot continue to have almost one-in-four children being overweight or obese at reception age. When that figure rises to one in three by year 6 at school, we need to ask what’s happening during those school years, something is going badly wrong and we need to act.  Childhood obesity is an issue that requires action at all levels from local to national. What is it about our environment that makes our children more overweight than those in other major cities like Paris and Madrid? In London, we need to make the healthier choice the easier choice, in abundant examples, this is not currently the case.

We want to be ambitious for London & give our children the best start in life, Londoners are keen to act. Addressing the problem will require bold, ambitious and collective action.  During phase 1 of the Great Weight Debate event held in May  we spoke to over a hundred Londoners as well as a range of professionals to consider what can be done at a community level and across London. The experts agree that the obesity epidemic is the response you would expect to an abnormal environment. It isn’t that our genetics have changed so dramatically in recent decades – but our environment has. Londoners at the event were surprised to see the figures on the proliferation of fast-food restaurants in the capital, and by the amount of children admitted to hospital with tooth-decay. There was a recognition that this goes beyond individual responsibility. I was impressed by the ideas that Londoners came up with during the event. Among them were restricting advertisement of unhealthy food and drink,  community cooking and nutrition education, and, community level interventions like the use of the spaces in our environment and changing the food offer on our high streets to be healthier . Londoners could be encouraged to walk or cycle more if it became an easier option. We could harness new technology to find innovative ways to make the healthier choice the easier choice. There are already mobile phone apps for healthy cooking and fitness for example.

In August the government published the Childhood Obesity Plan outlining significant steps to tackle the problem at a national level. This includes a commitment to introduce a levy on sugary drinks. PHE are leading nationally on an ambitious programme to reduce the level of sugar in food and drink. These are the beginning of a national journey; we know that there are even more options that we can consider in London. The good news is that we have already started on this journey. Every local borough has developed an action plan to address childhood obesity and have prioritised a number of issues such as; making london a breast feeding friendly city,  heathy food in public places , healthy catering commitment and much more.

At PHE London we already work to support London families to eat more healthily and be more physically active through campaigns like Change4Life. We support the successful programme of Healthy Schools London. But the Great Weight Debate is something different. It’s a real opportunity to hear Londoners views on our child obesity epidemic . Can we generate solutions when we put our heads together? The next stage of the Great Weight Debate will see local authorities speaking to their constituents to get their views. We need everyone to get involved, from businesses and communities, to schools and faith groups. This is for tomorrow’s London. How will it look, and how can we help ourselves?

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