Tackling childhood obesity – the time is now

Atul Singhal, Professor of Paediatric Nutrition and Chair of the Infant & Toddler Forum


At the Infant & Toddler Forum (ITF), we are committed to giving every child the healthiest start in life. As an expert-led, not-for-profit organisation we have dedicated our work to early life nutrition, from pregnancy to pre-school, because we know that healthy eating habits established in childhood are more likely to last a lifetime.

Over the years, we have helped tens of thousands of parents and providers such as nurseries, giving them the confidence and skills they need to instil these healthy habits in their children. And we’re determined that everyone has access to the knowledge, information and tools they need.

When we launched in 2004 the importance of the early years was not understood and the educational needs of professionals and parents were dramatically underserved. Over the years, there has been a significant shift in understanding and although early life is now widely recognised as critical to influence a child’s lifelong health, we are faced with a childhood obesity epidemic as the health crisis of our time!

Today, almost a quarter (25%) of children aged 4-5 and around 35% of 10-11-year olds are overweight or obese[i].  Even more alarming is the impact on future generations. We know that obese children are more likely to become obese adults[ii], and that a child’s risk of becoming obese in later life can be pre-determined by the age of six[iii] . This could lead to ever-growing rates of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and spiralling numbers of strokes and heart attacks[iv].

This health crisis isn’t just a personal one. Along with how it affects people and families, the NHS is in danger of being completely overwhelmed, with more of its resources being spent on lifestyle-associated, progressive conditions[v]. The scale of the problem is at a critical level – yet it’s a crisis the UK public continues to walk towards in blissful ignorance.

At a time of austerity and ever-increasing budgetary restraint, it is important to target resources towards initiatives that are likely to have the most effect. This means intervening in the process of obesity as early as possible. Policy initiatives have come thick and fast in a concerted effort to stem the tide of increasing obesity. In England this has culminated in a national strategy that aims to significantly reduce the childhood obesity rate within the next ten years. What these policy documents lack, however, is any clear idea of how frontline professionals can ensure that these objectives may be delivered.

We couldn’t do our work without partnering extensively with healthcare professionals, who are at the heart of everything we do, and other experts, to create consistency and best practice in the advice that we provide. This collaboration with key stakeholders underpins every step of our work, from identifying what advice or support is needed, to developing the evidence-base for our programmes and creating the resources that are right for both healthcare professionals, providers, carers and parents alike. Engagement during the creative process enables ownership and uptake.  It’s this unique approach that sets us apart and that people tell us make the work of the ITF genuinely useful in their everyday lives. And we are committed to working with the food industry to ensure they play their part in tackling childhood obesity.

We know our work makes a difference, both today and for future generations, but there is so much more we need to do. With your help, we can reach more parents and families who need the support as well as work with more providers who play such an important part in shaping how children feel about food.

Let’s join forces to tackle childhood obesity – to ensure a bright, healthier future for all our children.

[i] National Child Measurement Programme 2018 – https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/ncmp-and-child-obesity-profile-academic-year-2017-to-2018-update

[ii] World Health Organisation – https://www.who.int/dietphysicalactivity/childhood_consequences/en/

[iii] New England Journal of Medicine – acceleration of BMI in early childhood and risk of sustained obesity

[iv] Health and Social Care Information Centre (2015) Health Survey for England 2014 – October 2018

[v] Estimates for UK in 2014/15 are based on: Scarborough, P. (2011) The economic burden of ill health due to diet, physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol and obesity in the UK: an update to 2006–07 NHS costs. Journal of Public Health. May 2011, 1-6. Uplifted to take into account inflation. No adjustment has been made for slight changes in overweight and obesity rates over this period. It’s been assumed England costs account for around 85% of UK costs.

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Further Reading

  • Katie Fox, Primary School Teacher   Due to coronavirus, playgroups and nurseries are shut and those children due to start school in a few months will be out of routine and away from friends. It is understandable that many parents are worried about getting their children ready for September. Children learn and progress at different rates so there are no set criteria on what they need to be able to know or do when they first start nursery, but if they have had some experience learning at home it could help to make it a smoother transition. Turn taking games, imaginative play, reading, and developing fine and gross motor skills can promote independence, build confidence and help develop simple skills.
  • Dr Gill Harris, Consultant Paediatric Clinical Psychologist Dr Maddy Harris, Clinical Psychologist   In times of crisis – such as the one we are currently living in – parents may find that the normal stresses of everyday life are magnified and additional worries and concerns emerge. Knowing how to cope may prove difficult, but an approach which has widely been discussed in the media and on social media is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).The premise of ACT is that fears and anxieties are seen as real and cannot be ‘challenged’ away, unlike with cognitive behavioural therapy. By concentrating on our actions we are able to work past our fears. This method may help those struggling with this new chaotic routine we find ourselves in. The Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help with our top tips on how to apply this intervention.
  • Lucy Upton, Specialist Paediatric Dietitian and Nutritionist   As social distancing policies are put in place, and schools and nurseries shut their doors indefinitely, keeping your toddlers entertained and active for hours on end during COVID-19 may seem daunting and at times virtually impossible! Parents and carers have been thrown into a cozy and chaotic ‘new normal’ and may wonder how they can meet the recommended three hours a day of physical activity for under-fives who are walking. But do not panic, the Infant & Toddler Forum are here to help make sure you have plenty of ideas to keep your toddler happy and entertained whilst encouraging physical activity.