Almost a third of children aged between 2 and 15 in England are overweight or obese, according to the NHS.
Meanwhile, the obesity gap between rich and poor children has widened in what the UK's department of health and social care has reportedly described as a “rising epidemic.”
Now, however, Leeds has become the first city in Britain to report a fall in childhood obesity.
Overall, Leeds has seen a drop in obesity among 5-year-olds from 9.4% in 2013-14 to 8.8% in 2016-17, according to the Guardian — and the fall has particularly been seen among families in the poorest areas of the city.
“The improvement in the most deprived children in Leeds is startling,” said Susan Jebb, a professor of diet and population health at Oxford University and former government obesity adviser.
“If you look at it by deprivation, the most deprived group in Leeds is doing especially well,” she added, according to the Yorkshire Evening Post. “That is astonishing.”
The NHS warned in 2018 that policies to prevent the rise in childhood obesity have “failed to address how social class affects the likelihood of becoming overweight.”
While there are a range of factors in this, one key factor is that meals that are nutritionally poor, but rich in energy, tend to be cheaper and quicker to cook.
“The study makes for sad reading, suggesting the rise in childhood obesity — with its risk of long-term poor health — affects children from more deprived sections of society disproportionately,” the NHS says on its website.
Leeds has now become one of just a few cities in the world that have recorded a drop in childhood obesity levels — with most of the world instead having seen rapidly increasing obesity levels for the past 20 years, according to the NHS.
Amsterdam is another of these cities, after it saw a 12% drop in the number of overweight and obese children in 2018, reported the BBC, thanks to the city’s healthy weight programme.
But, according to Jebb, whose team was involved in the analysis of Leeds’ obesity data, people aren’t talking enough about the great progress being made in Leeds.
“Everybody is going around saying Amsterdam is doing something amazing,” she said. “Well, actually, Leeds is, too.”
Jebb presented the research at the European Congress on Obesity, held in Glasgow, which ended on Wednesday.
She described how the data showed a fall from 11.5% to 10.5% between 2013 and 2017 among poorer families — while among richer families the decline was from 6.8% to 6%.
In terms of age brackets, the biggest drop was reportedly the 6.4% seen in the reception class, at about four years old — while 625 fewer obese children recorded from 2016 to 2017.
While it’s not entirely clear what has led to the progress in Leeds, according to reports, a lot of the success has been attributed to a programme that gives parents classes in how to work with their children to encourage healthy eating and exercise.
The programme is called Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young — Henry for short — and it particularly focuses on very young children and the most deprived families.
It was introduced in the city as part of its obesity strategy in 2009 and, since then, some 6,000 families in Leeds have reportedly been given the lessons — at a cost to councils of £50 per family.
The CEO of Henry, Kim Roberts, described the drop in obesity in Leeds as “unprecedented.”
“Authoritarian parenting is when children are told what to eat and what to do, such as being banned from leaving the table until they have eaten their sprouts,” said Roberts in a statement. “Permissive parenting is asking what they want to do.”
“But Henry encourages a third approach known as authoritative parenting, where parents make it clear they are in charge, but also respond to their children,” she added.
So rather than offering vegetables as an option, for example, parents are encouraged to ask their children whether they’d prefer peas or carrots.
Over the past eight years, Henry has established a partnership with local public health departments, NHS trusts, and children’s services across England and Wales. By 2017, according to a government report, over 12,000 practitioners have been trained and 8,000 parents had taken part in family programmes.
That report said that 93% of families were leading healthy or very healthy lifestyles by the end of the programmes — compared to 21% at the start. And 42% of children in participating families were eating fruit and veg five times a day, compared to 21% at the start.
The data used by the Oxford University team in the analysis was gathered from the national child measurement programme (NCMP) — which sees all children weighed at the start and end of primary school.
Globally, obesity levels have been increasing rapidly worldwide for the past 20 years, according to the NHS — and the problem has been labeled a global epidemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
“Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century,” the WHO says on its website. “The problem is global and is steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.”
In 2016, the number of overweight children under the age of five was estimated to be over 41 million. Almost half of these lived in Asia, and a quarter lived in Africa.
But obesity is linked to significantly greater chances of serious disease and early death.
A study also presented at the obesity congress in Glasgow this week showed that people with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 to 35 were at a 70% higher risk of developing heart failure, compared to their healthy weight counterparts, reported ITV.
Meanwhile, obese children are more likely to become obese adults and health problems can develop into serious illnesses like cardiovascular disease, hypertension and stroke, and cancer.
You can find the NHS advice on eating healthily for less here.