In his March Budget, the Chancellor announced the imposition of a new tax on sugary drinks to help tackle childhood obesity and fund sporting activities in primary schools. But how big a problem is childhood obesity?

Public Health England estimates that nearly 1 in 5 children who start school are either overweight or obese. This rises to 1 in 3 when they leave primary school – considerably higher than 20 years ago.

In adults, obesity is defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of greater than 30. However, in children, due to growth spurts at various times, it is a little more difficult to define as their ‘normal’ BMI changes. Therefore, a BMI in the top 15% is considered overweight and a BMI in the top 5% is classified as obese.

What causes obesity?

There are thought to be a number of factors responsible for the increasing rates of childhood obesity. These include the easy availability of sugary snacks and fast food and the advertising of such products, influencing children to choose these over healthier alternatives. This is paired with a decreasing emphasis on physical activity and sports in primary school, and more sedentary lifestyles in general, which tend to be spent in front of screens and tablets.

Sugar is an excellent energy source which the body relies upon, but when too much is consumed and subsequently not burnt off through physical activity, the body converts this to fat and stores it. This leads to weight gain.

So what if my child is obese?

Obesity can have a large impact on physical health and well-being. Children who are overweight tend to be victims of bullying at school. This can harm the child emotionally and psychologically and subsequently stop them from achieving their full potential. In addition to this, children are at risk of developing many medical conditions. Obese children tend to grow into obese adults and this can lead to many long-term conditions, including:

  • High Blood Pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Increased risk of heart attack and strokes
  • Fatty Liver Disease
  • Arthritis
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders

What can be done?

Unfortunately, there is no magic cure for childhood obesity. Treatment is much the same as for adults; simply increase physical activity and reduce sugar intake.

Many adults understand how hard it is to lose weight and therefore, like the old saying goes, prevention is better than cure. It has been suggested that children develop their eating habits at between 12 and 24 months. Exposing children to a healthy lifestyle from a young age can therefore create positive habits to last a lifetime.

  • Try to avoid keeping sugary snacks, juices or soft drinks available in the house as they become a temptation.
  • Stock up on healthy snacks, such as fruit and vegetables.
  • Encourage your children to drink water with their meals and in between.

The government recommends that children should be undertaking an hour of moderate physical activity every day of the week. For this to be successful, children need to be encouraged to be more active without seeing it as exercise or a chore.

  • Try and limit the amount of time your children spend in front of a screen to two hours per day.
  • Find an activity that your child enjoys doing and get the whole family to join in. Not only will this increase the amount of physical activity undertaken, it will also create opportunities for quality family time.
  • Make small changes, such as cycling or walking to school or the bus stop.

If you have any concerns regarding your child’s health or weight, then consult a GP who may be able to provide you with more specific advice regarding local services that may be available to you.

Dr Kazim Dhanji

General Practitioner with GPDQ, the UK’s first on-demand app for GP home visits.