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Childhood obesity strategy is 'underwhelming' and 'far from robust', claims Jamie Oliver

Article By: Melissa McAlees, News Editor

As the Government is set to start the ‘long-awaited’ childhood obesity plan, health campaigners have called the proposals ‘feeble’ compared to what was initially expected and have called for new Prime Minister Theresa May to take action.

Jamie Oliver. Credit: Channel 4 Picture Publicity

The measures, centred on the sugar tax announced by George Osborne in March, will include a levy on sugary drinks and a target for food manufacturers to reduce the level of sugar in food and drink by 20 per cent in five years – but it will be voluntary, and will not include many of the measures demanded by health campaigners, such as restrictions on advertising.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver took to Twitter to share his disappointment, tweeting: “The long-awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy from Theresa May’s new Government is far from robust. 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? Where are the actions on the irresponsible advertising targeted at our children, and the restrictions on junk food promotions?

“With this disappointing, and frankly, underwhelming strategy the health of our future generations remains at stake. I sincerely hope the Government's promise to ‘take further action where it is needed’ is true.”

’Childhood Obesity – a Plan for Action’

The Government document, ‘Childhood Obesity – a Plan for Action’, published by the Department of Health, says that “all sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20 per cent by 2020, including a five per cent reduction in year one. This can be achieved through reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.”

The campaign, coordinated by Public Health England (PHE), will focus initially on the foods that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes, such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, pastries, puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads.

As a further step towards tackling childhood obesity, the Government has announced they will be introducing a soft drinks industry levy across the UK.

In England, the revenue from the levy will be invested in programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school age children. This includes doubling the Primary PE and Sport Premium and putting a further £10m a year into school healthy breakfast clubs to give more children a healthier start to their day.

Public Health England will monitor the progress of the proposals and if insufficient progress is being made, the Government says it will consider whether alternative approaches need to be implemented.

Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau said: “Obese children not only suffer the consequences of ill health while they are children, but they are also more likely to be struck down with conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes as adults. Now, at last, we have a plan for reducing obesity early in life.

“Introducing a new sugar tax and reducing the amount of sugar in foods should help reduce the scandalous level of unnecessary sugar that we eat and help children and their families to choose a healthier diet.”

'Weak and embarrassing'

Yet, medical experts and health campaigners have criticised the Government’s childhood obesity strategy as ‘weak’ and ‘embarrassing’, and accused policymakers of ‘throwing away the best chance to tackle the culture of unhealthy eating that is crippling the NHS’.

Action on Sugar, a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health, recommend sugar content in food should be halved and fat reduced by 20 per cent in order to make a significant difference to levels of obesity in the UK.

The charity estimates that the plan in its current form will only reduce calorie intake by around 10-20Kcal per person per day as a maximum which they claim ‘is nowhere near enough to have any real effect on preventing obesity’.

Restricting advertising, marketing and promotion is another evidence based way of reducing calorie intake, particularly in children who are targeted by the food industry both directly and through their parents. Yet they suggest the plan has ‘no specifics about any marketing restrictions’.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) said: “It is an insulting response to the UK crisis in obesity Type 2 diabetes both in children and adults. This will bankrupt the NHS unless something radical is done.

“We urge Theresa May to revert back with an evidence based robust policy to prevent childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes. This would also be a major opportunity for her to demonstrate that she is being real in trying to help people who are less well off, particularly the socially deprived.”

’Children are surrounded by junk food advertising’

The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of over 30 organisations who have joined together to fight obesity, has also commented on the ‘watered down’ plan to promote healthier foods on screens and to remove junk food advertising.

In a statement the Obesity Health Alliance said: “While the soft drinks industry levy will save money tomorrow by helping to tackle children’s obesity today’, children and families live in an environment surrounded by junk food advertising.

“While the launch of the soft drinks industry levy consultation is an important step, the Government’s plan falls disappointingly short of what is needed. In particular, there is strong evidence that shows that targets, backed by regulation, for the food and drinks industry to make their products healthier and removing junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed would have a huge impact on reducing levels of obesity so it is very disappointing to see that both of these measures have been significantly watered down or removed entirely.”

Strategies focus heavily on primary-aged children

Although early years organisations have welcomed the childhood obesity strategy and the changes outlined to update menu guidance for nurseries, they have criticised the lack of emphasis placed on the early years.

Neil Leitch, chief executive at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “While the development of menus to support early years settings – an initiative the Alliance is part of – is undoubtedly positive, it’s concerning to see that the strategy focuses so heavily on primary-age children with much less emphasis on the early years, despite the report’s own recognition that this is ‘a crucial time for children’s development’.

“We have long recognised the importance of promoting healthy lifestyles and good nutrition in the early years and as part of the Early Years Nutrition Partnership, which supports settings to improve their nutrition practice, believe that every child, without exception, should have access to good nutrition.”

The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) would also welcome the Government to involve nurseries more in its fight against childhood obesity.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of NDNA added: “Given that a fifth of children are already overweight or obese by the time they start reception class, and only one in ten meets physical activity guidelines, more emphasis should be put on working with children and families as early as possible, as well as in schools.

“For many children, efforts to support them to eat healthily and develop an active lifestyle, from the age of five, will start too late and they will need to work very hard to break bad habits that are already established.

“The best nurseries already do an amazing job without any special Government support in this area and super-healthy foods at forward-thinking childcare settings are completely normalised with interesting foods served in inventive ways.”

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