Tower Hamlets recently signed up to the Sugar Reduction and Healthier Food charter in an attempt to reduce childhood obesity throughout the borough.
Tower Hamlets has some of the country’s highest rates when it comes to overweight or obese children. Figures from the NHS Data Centre showed that in 2014, 25 per cent of Year 6 students in the borough were either overweight or obese.
Throughout the country one in five children in reception is overweight or obese but by Year 6 this rises to one in three. As childhood obesity escalates throughout the nation the same is happening in London.
Together with the North East and the West Midlands, London has the highest rates of childhood obesity in the nation and within the capital, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Lewisham and Croydon are among the worst affected boroughs.
Compared to other global cities London has a high rate of childhood obesity. New York City has registered a decline in the trend while London has seen a steady increase over the past 20 years.
The causes of childhood obesity may seem simple, with inactivity and an unhealthy diet often quoted. But as Obesity Statistics, a report by Carl Baker for the House of Commons shows, the root of the problem often lies much deeper when looking at social and geographic factors.
According to a report by the Child Measurement Program, there is a direct correlation between obesity and deprivation with children in the most deprived 10 per cent of areas twice as likely to be obese than those in the 10 per cent most affluent areas.
Doctors, social workers and local authorities have many theories for why this is. One could be that many low-income areas are overpopulated and built up leaving little space for activity or that fast food is cheaper.
Family dynamics are changing and the traditional family sit-down dinner isn’t as common as it used to be, especially among low-income families, where both parents may be out at work for long hours.
A report on childhood obesity in London, commissioned by City Hall, showed how being overweight can lead to many physical and mental issues such as asthma, Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol and emotional and behavioural issues. Childhood obesity could lead to bullying, more school absences, low self-esteem and a higher chance of being obese as an adult.
According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSIC) in 2010 around five per cent of women giving birth were overweight or obese, in the same year the figure in London was at around seven per cent.
Maternal obesity can result in the children suffering obesity later in life. Being overweight while pregnant can often lead to premature births which in turn leads to a higher chance of obesity.
Tower Hamlets’ new charter focuses on six areas with the main points being: promoting advertisement of healthy options, reducing sugar intake by putting a levy on sugary drinks at council-run canteens, and thirdly leading by example and at council meetings offering only healthy options.
A council spokesperson told Eastlondonlines: “Our aim is to make it easier for children, families and adults to be more physically active and eat more healthily. Working with partners, the council is working on ways to make it easier for people to be active and have access to green spaces through initiatives such as cycling programmes in our schools.”
On their website, the council acknowledges that outdoor activity is hard to come by in the borough because it is so built up. It does, however, offer a range of activities for children and families.
Dr Somen Banerjee, director of Public Health at Tower Hamlets, told EastLondonLines: “There is much more we can be doing to give children the healthiest start possible. We have an obligation to not only increase access to healthier options but to proactively increase awareness of the serious health implications of consuming too much sugar.”
Croydon’s 2015 annual health report outlines that the borough tries to tackle childhood obesity through a number of organisations.
Maggie Mansell, a councillor in Croydon, told Eastlondonlines: “We have a Healthy Schools programme which has been in place for over 20 years. We accredit schools against criteria such as provision of fruit not sweets, healthy school meals, nutrition in the curriculum, information to parents such as packed lunch advice.”
The borough’s PhunkyFoods initiative targets children in primary schools and tries to educate them on healthy balanced diets. Simultaneously, another initiative tries to encourage its inhabitants to get more exercise by making more use of the borough’s parks and recreational areas.
According to a 2016 report, Hackney has introduced 40 playing streets within the borough to make children more active. Moreover, they have worked with 47 children’s centres and 15 childminders to implement their Eat Better Start Better food and drink guidelines, which were expected to reach 2,200 children.
Like the other boroughs, Lewisham has pledged to create more open spaces and recreational areas to encourage children to be more physically active. Their food strategy centres on making healthy, sustainable food more accessible to children throughout the borough through schools.
Although these are all good initiatives, it is unlikely that this alone will be able to decrease the number of children who are overweight or obese. To get this number to decline the boroughs need to follow Tower Hamlets’ example and make legislative change to reduce dangerous ingredients which affect children’s health.