Preventing childhood obesity

Overweight: Childhood Obesity

In this final instalment of my Overweight blog I want to talk about childhood obesity and how to prevent it.  The blog so far as been quite factual, focussing on statistics and definitions.  Tackling childhood obesity is a real passion of mine and I wanted to write about it more personally and emotionally.   

Preventative nutrition is amazingly enjoyable for me.  I see many adults really struggle to manage their weight and health after years of poor lifestyle and a disrupted relationship with food, and I’m not going to lie, reversal is harder work than just starting off on the right foot in the first place as children.   There is nothing more satisfying that watching little ones devour their food with that intense hunger that comes with new life.  I feel excited when my little-one clients start to eat better, and as a mum I am fulfilled and relaxed when Lexi has a good appetite for what I cook her. It makes me smile when she eats; fists clenched around a piece of mackerel or a giant strawberry, and olive oil smeared all over her chops. 

So, what kind of food should we be feeding our children to prevent excess weight and ill-health?  Well, allergies and intolerances aside, your children should eat what you eat.  Now, obviously if you are eating a highly processed diet and three takeaways a week, then your children should not be eating what you eat – but then neither should you.  But if you are cooking your meals from scratch and consuming a diet rich in all the essential nutrients then no matter which cuisine you prefer, be it Thai, Italian, Spanish or Moroccan, your children should be eating it too, from six months old.  And yes, even chilli peppers, sea salt and anchovies are on the menu, from six months old.   Of course, babies and children do have different nutritional needs at different ages, on both a macro and micro nutrient level, and you can work with a nutritional therapist or dietician to ensure you are a) aware of and b) fulfilling these needs. But otherwise, if your babe is healthy, then there’s nothing wrong with feeding them ‘adult’ food. 

Starting young helps with obesity prevention – and when I say ‘young’, I mean in the womb.  Babies taste molecules from your bloodstream and will therefore begin to recognise flavours and develop preferences even before they are born, so it helps to pack your diet with as much variety as possible at this stage.  If you choose to (and can) breastfeed then this can further develop their pallet since they taste your diet through their milk. 

Once you start to wean, introduce pureed versions of your meals immediately and don’t hold back on flavour.  Government guidelines on salt can all too easily scaremonger people into making their children separate, blander versions of dishes, or even worse, resorting to jarred food.  Please don’t worry about salt.  One or two pinches of sea salt in a large pot of home-made pasta sauce translates into a microscopic amount in the tablespoon that you are putting into their bowl. When browsing the shopping aisles try to resist the cute, heavily marketed snacks for babies and toddlers. I can’t even give you an example because I don’t buy them, but you’ll know the stuff I mean – convenient, grabbable packets masquerading as vegetable or fruit-based delights. Just give them vegetables or fruit. Little treats are important, so if you are out for coffee and cake at the weekend then share your caramel slice with the littles (or buy two!); being inclusive is sometimes more important than worrying about the nutritional content of food and embracing these pleasures is an important part of raising children without food issues.   

If your children are past the infant stage, then it’s never too late to make changes.  Slowly empty the freezer of ‘kids’ food’ (fish fingers, pizzas etc.), stop preparing them separate meals and try not to worry about their reaction.  You might be surprised, I have worked with several teenagers and often find they embrace these changes towards a healthier lifestyle. 

When children are toddlers they are supposed to have ‘chub’, but 7-12-year olds should be lean and active, no matter what their body shape is genetically designed to be as an adult.   The food industry is incredibly good at marketing, and I appreciate how easily hard-working parents end up in a rut of feeding their kids convenience food that sells itself as ‘healthy’.  I understand, I sympathise and there’s no blame.   I simply have an ambition to re-educate and support parents in the raising of your beautiful children.

Poverty and Obesity

Overweight: Poverty & Obesity

In the last instalment of Overweight, we established that the UK is the 43rd most obese country in the world but also the most obese OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country in western Europe, with well over 25% of the population having a BMI of 30 or above. When looking at England specifically, we also established that London (particularly Camden and Kensington) and Cambridge are the ‘least fat’ places in the UK, followed by the home counties and Kent. The north east of England has the highest obesity levels with over 75% of the population in Rotherham carrying excess weight. Yorkshire, Humber and the East Midlands are also ‘fatter’ than average. But what is it that causes one area of the country to be more ‘obese’ than another? There is undoubtedly a correlation between poverty and obesity, but which is causal? And are there any other demographic factors that link to obesity?

Social deprivation and obesity hugely overlap. It is no accident that the most deprived cities in the UK include Rotherham, Sunderland, Wolverhampton, Rochdale, Bradford, Barnsley, Leeds and Birmingham, all of which can be found in the ‘fattest’ counties. There is also a particularly strong relationship between deprivation and childhood obesity, with ‘obesity prevalence in the most deprived 10% of children approximately twice that of the least deprived’ (Public Health England). Poverty, in the form of low income, poor education, limited prospects, negative inclusion (where communities unite around shared negative choices and shun those, even their own children, who aspire to make more positive life choices than them, ultimately because they find positive change threatening), disruptive, neglectful and even abusive home life, where the focus is on surviving rather than thriving, and stress, are all factors which massively increase the likelihood of obesity.

Obesity is also causal in that it can, in turn, further harm someone’s prospects in life, their self-esteem and underlying mental health, their physical well-being, their motivation and life choices and even, over time, their genetics. Poverty causes obesity and obesity causes further poverty; they feed off each other creating an existence that is increasingly small, dark and angry. It is very hard for communities to climb out of this kind of existence once the damage is done.

Sir Michael Marmot has written a review on how income, social deprivation and ethnicity all have an important impact on the likelihood of becoming obese. Indeed Public Health England reported that, Black adults are the most likely out of all ethnic groups to be obese, and are twice as likely as Chinese adults to be so. A House of Commons briefing paper, written by Carl Bakers in March 2018, tells us that obesity levels increase after the age of 45 and are also slightly higher in women, although obesity and overweight combined is more prevalent in men.

The next instalment of the Overweight series will focus on childhood obesity and measures that we can take to prevent it.

Global Obesity Map

Overweight: The Geography of Obesity

More than 603 million adults and 107 million children on this planet are obese, according to a report published in 2017 from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, based at the University of Washington in Seattle. The global population is approximately 7.5 billion, so the obese population represents around 5% of all children and 12% of all adults, globally.

Although the obesity levels in the United States always make headlines, it may come as a surprise to know that it’s not the US that tops the obesity chart but rather America Samoa and other South Pacific islands, where up to 75% of the populations are measured as obese. The weight of adults is increasing at four times the global average in this part of the world which could, in part, be due to the influence of colonial eating habits.

Rankings shift, but the top 20 world obesity list (compiled by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation) looked like this in October 2017:

1) America Samoa
2) Nauru
3) Cook Islands
4) Tokelau
5) Tonga
6) Samoa
7) Palau
8) Kiribati
9) Marshall Islands
10) Kuwait
11) Saint Kitts & Nevis
12) Micronesia
13) The Bahamas
14) Barbados
15) Belize
16) Qatar
17) Egypt
18) United States
19) Saudi Arabia
20) Bahrain

Of the world’s most populous countries, we see that it is Egypt, United States, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain that make this top 20 list. The UK is 43rd overall but is also ranked the most obese OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) country in western Europe with well over 25% of the population having a BMI of 30 or above.

At the other end of the scale Asian and African countries dominate. Japan and China are relatively low on the list (157th and 152nd respectively) and fewer than 2% of Ethiopia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Madagascar, Vietnam and India are obese. Most European countries are littered throughout the middle of this list, with the least obese European countries being Switzerland (111th), followed by France (108th), Denmark (107th) and Sweden (104th).

According to the World Health Organisation, the current obesity picture in Europe looks something like this:

1) Turkey (32%)
2) Malta (29%)
3) United Kingdom (28%)
4) Hungary (26%)
5) Lithuania (26%)
6) Israel (26%)
7) Czech Republic (26%)
8) Andorra (26%)
9) Ireland (25%)
10) Bulgaria (25%)

When we look at England in isolation the picture is interesting. Camden has the lowest level of excess weight in the country along with Kensington and Cambridge. London, overall, is the ‘least fat’ region in the UK. This trend spills out into the home counties and Kent with urban areas all over the South East showing relatively low levels. The north east of England has the highest obesity levels with over 75% of the population in Rotherham carrying excess weight. The surrounding areas of Yorkshire and the Humber and the East Midlands are also ‘fatter’ than average. Boston has the highest level of obesity in the country.

Next time I will be discussing what drives high levels of obesity in England and the UK, compared with other European countries. Until then, follow this link and scroll down to see what the obesity levels are like in your postcode:

Obesity Postcode Checker


Weight loss support

Overweight: The Definition of Obesity

Let’s begin by exploring the definition of obesity:

‘abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A crude measure of obesity is the body mass index (BMI), which is a person’s weight (in kilograms) divided by the square of their height (in metres). A person with a BMI of 30 or more is generally considered obese. A person with a BMI of 25 or more is considered overweight’. (World Health Organisation)

The World Health Organisation acknowledges that this definition is crude, since ‘weight’ can be made up of fat, muscle and bone density, in differing proportions. Someone who is muscular with a high bone density could have a BMI that exceeds 25 but they are likely to be healthier than someone who simply carries abundant excess fat.

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Weight issues

Overweight: An Introduction

I don’t want to litter your news-feeds with yet more of the same information on obesity. It’s all we seem to hear and read about these days and over-exposure only leads to us glazing over and not really taking note of something that, in this case, we probably should.

What you are reading now is the introduction to a series of obesity blogs called Overweight.  In this series I will be covering what obesity is, where it is, why it’s bad, how it happens, why it happens, when it happens, who it happens to and what we can do about it.  I will be referencing quantitative data from credible sources, but also drawing on my own qualitative experience as a nutritionist, since I believe that obesity is a complex issue and greatly misunderstood by even the most trusted of health organisations. My aim is to make it something that people better understand and feel more equipped to deal with.  The series is designed for those who struggle with their weight but also for anyone who wants to be better informed.  It will also be useful for parents who wish to prevent childhood obesity at home.

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bread made with untreated flour

A bit of chlorine with your bread, madam?

Last Friday afternoon I ate some bread that tasted of bleach.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  I cut into a “fresh”, “organic” wholemeal loaf from Sainsburys, cut the slice in half and buttered it.  I handed Lexi one half and bit into the other.  After three chews I spat out what I had in my mouth and immediately wrestled the bread off Lexi.  What should have been a warm, squishy and comforting tea time snack was, instead, a mouthful of vile, toxic mush.  I was horrified, and incredibly angry.

Only a few weeks earlier I experienced something similar with Clarence Court eggs in that they smelt and tasted of chlorine.  Now, either I am unlucky or this a worrying sign that the chemical processing of food is on the rise.  I fear the latter.

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little strawberries cookery school

The Little Strawberries Summer Cookery School for Children

I’m excited.  During the summer holidays I will be running the Little Strawberries Summer Cookery School for Children from my village home in Stoke Sub Hamdon, which is just 25 minutes from Sherborne via the A303 or Yeovil.  The school is designed for parents and little ones aged 0-10 years and will run 10.00 am to 12.30pm each Monday morning, from July 30th to September 3rd.

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Organic allotment

The Benefits of Growing your Own

I was up at the allotment checking my potatoes yesterday and started thinking about why growing my own has become a favourite past time.  I haven’t been doing it that long, but it brings me such joy and I genuinely get excited about going up there and checking on progress.  A lot of people ask why I bother – “Isn’t it easier and cheaper just to nip to the supermarket?”. Sure, I suppose the financial savings are negligible when you’re doing it on a small scale and, yes, nipping to the co-op is probably quicker.

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child nutrition

What’s on the kids’ menu?

I love working with babies and children.  There is nothing more satisfying that watching little ones devour their food with that intense hunger that comes with new life.  I feel excited when my little clients start to eat better, and as a mum I am fulfilled and relaxed when Lexi has a good appetite for what I cook her. It makes me smile when she eats; fists clenched around a piece of mackerel or a giant strawberry, and olive oil smeared all over her chops.

Read More