1 in 5 reception age children in Bedford are overweight or obese says health boss

The environment people live and work in makes it harder for residents to eat and live healthily, a meeting heard
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One in five reception age children in Bedford is overweight or obese as the environment people live and work in makes it harder for residents to eat and live healthily, a meeting heard.

And that figure rises to two in five by the end of primary school, and three in five for adults.

Vicky Head, Director of Public Health for Bedford Borough, Central Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes told the recent Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee (July 10) that excess weight is a “major cause of preventable ill health and death”.

A young child is weighed on scales.A young child is weighed on scales.
A young child is weighed on scales.

“Excess body fat now contributes to more deaths in people aged over 45 than smoking does,” she said.

“We know that excess weight is a problem for us in Bedford, one in five reception age children are overweight or obese. That rises to two in five children at the end of primary school, and then up to three in five adults.

“And those trends are creeping in the wrong direction over time,” she said.

Ms Head added that there is a “really wide” variation by deprivation in the borough.

“In Cauldwell, nearly half of children in year six are living with excess weight and that compares to just under a quarter of children who are living in Oakley,” she said.

“[But] when we think of weight as an individual problem it creates blame and stigma, which we know makes it harder for individuals to seek support.

“And we also know it actively makes their physical and mental health worse,” she said.

“We become more overweight as a society over time, but what’s changed isn’t us as individuals. We’ve not become more irresponsible, it’s the environment around us that has changed.

“It’s true that individuals make decisions about what food to eat or how active to be, but those choices are really heavily influenced by the environment the people live in.

Ms Head explained that “millions of pounds” are invested in making people buy and consume foods that lead to weight gain.

And that money is invested in advertising unhealthy food and positioning it in prominent places within the borough’s communities.

“As a society we’re also increasingly sedentary, so there’s minimal activity built into our routine daily life,” she added.

“Our towns and cities tend to prioritise travel by car and being physically active and our leisure time requires much more time, confidence and motivation than many people have.

“Most people actually know what they shouldn’t eat but that doesn’t necessarily determine what they actually eat,” she said.

Councillor Dean Crofts (LibDems, Kingsbrook) asked: “This might be controversial, but if we’re moving away from individual responsibility do we need to test children in schools any more to say that they’re obese?”

Ms Head replied: “I think the real reason why I think that it is beneficial to test children in schools is because it gives us the population level data, so it allows us to track the trends over time.

“You could then argue that you don’t need to measure every child,

“We are statutory required to do that, so we’ll continue to do so,” she said.

Councillor Crofts asked if this can be done without telling the parents as it can affect their mental health.

“It makes the parent feel like they’re a failure, it creates that stigma that the parenting to people are looking at them at school because they have a child that is obese.”

Ms Head replied: “We have found that when done carefully and well, the communication with parents can lead to more engagement with our weight management services.

“While I have quite a lot of sympathy with your perspective, we would potentially lose that connection and it might be harder for us to get children who would benefit from those services,” she said.

Ian Brown, chief officer for public health, said the letters to parents are “non-judgemental”.

“[They] really try to take on board all of that feedback and concerns around stigmatisation of the children and the families as well.

“We are also moving to a model where our families will be able to be directly contacted by our weight management services, so they can have a conversation with them.

“They’re not just receiving a letter with no support but actually they can have a conversation with a human being over the phone about it and what support is available.

“All of our support focuses on healthy eating and being active and the children are not weighed, they’re not measured in those programmes.

“They do not talk about obesity and being overweight at all.

“We think very, very carefully about the harms as well about the stigmatisation risks around eating disorders etc, so all of that is taken into account,” he said.