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Why child healthy weight matters

With rates of overweight and obesity in children continuing to rise over the past five years, Obesity Action Scotland are campaigning to change the trajectory. Ahead of presenting a workshop at our annual conference, Interim Programme Lead, Jennifer Forsyth, examines what needs to be done to deliver a healthy weight childhood for all children.

Child healthy weight matters. It’s a clear message but sadly it’s not the reality for many children living in Scotland today. Rates of overweight and obesity in children are continuing to rise. The latest data paints a stark picture. A third of children aged 2-15 are at risk of overweight and obesity, and 18% are at risk of obesity. And these outcomes aren’t experienced equally. There are clear links to poverty and deprivation. Children in the most deprived fifth of the population, by SIMD quintile, are more than twice as likely to be at risk of overweight and obesity than their least deprived peers.

This matters because children at risk of obesity are much more likely to have obesity as adults. Obesity in childhood also has a profound impact on children’s physical and mental health and wellbeing, which impacts on the ability of children to live happy and healthy lives.

In 2018, the Scottish Government published their Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan (click here for more) which outlined a commitment to halve childhood obesity by 2030, but more than five years on, we’re heading in completely the wrong direction.

So, what are the reasons for this trajectory?

There are of course many reasons, but three of the main ones are price, availability, and marketing and advertising of unhealthy food. We know that healthy food costs up to twice as much as unhealthy food, and the most deprived fifth of households need to spend half of their disposable incomes on food to meet the Government recommended healthy diet, compared to just 11% of disposable income in least deprived fifth.

Unhealthy food is more heavily promoted than healthier alternatives, and these promotions often lead to impulse purchases that consumers didn’t intend to make. Alongside such promotions, there is clear evidence of clustering of unhealthy food outlets in more deprived areas. This creates so called ‘food desserts’ where there is limited availability of healthy food.

And this unhealthy food is heavily marketed and advertised. This advertising is everywhere, on television, online and in public spaces, and is of particular relevance to children, as we know children are strongly influenced by this advertising and marketing activity. Exposure to unhealthy food advertising can lead to increased overall calorie intake in children and results in a higher chance of them preferring the advertised product when making food choices.

A healthy diet is simply unaffordable and not available for many families, and this is contributing to growing levels of overweight and obesity in children.

So, what can be done?

The good news is we know what works. Over the last year, Obesity Action Scotland has undertaken a range of activities to grow the evidence base to support what we know works.

We worked with researchers at the University of Glasgow to undertake an in-depth longitudinal analysis of the Growing Up in Scotland (GUS) survey (click here for more). The research and report used the GUS survey data and looked at weight outcomes at 3 points in childhood and adolescence – age 4, 10 and 14 to look at patterns over different age points and consider links with aspects of deprivation. The headline findings from the research indicate a strong relationship between obesity and deprivation – there are clear links between both living in a deprived area and household income with obesity, and the inequality experienced grows and widens as children get older.

Given the strong influence of advertising and marketing on children’s diets, we were keen to get first hand views from young people on their experiences. The Scottish Obesity Alliance (click here for more), which we’re the secretariat for, undertook a youth advocacy project with researchers from the University of Glasgow. Key findings from the project highlight that young people report they are exposed to high levels of unhealthy food marketing every day - they felt there was too much of it, and that food marketing regulations are needed to better protect young people. The title of the report (and accompanying short animation) ‘Adverts, adverts everywhere’ (click here for more) was actually a quote from one of the young people involved in the project and powerfully showcases the sheer scale of advertising and marketing young people are exposed to in their daily lives.

Since last summer, we’ve been running a campaign on child healthy weight. The aim is to raise awareness of the growing levels of childhood obesity, the significant health impact this is having, and the need for bold and urgent policy action. We launched the campaign in Scottish Parliament in June last year, where we gained the support of over 30 MSPs, and since then have been reaching out and engaging with a range of organisations to get their support. We recently submitted a joint letter (click here for more) signed by a wide range of organisations to the relevant Scottish Government ministers and await their response.

These activities highlight that if we want to deliver a healthy weight childhood for all children, we need to take a systemic approach to address the underlying causes of the growing levels of child obesity, namely poverty and the unhealthy food environment. We need politicians to take bold and urgent action to alter this trajectory, and to follow through with proposed evidence-based interventions we know work and will have a real impact. Child healthy weight matters. We now need the policy action to make it a reality for all children.

Interested in learning more? Obesity Action Scotland will be one of the 25 illuminating workshops taking place at our Annual Conference 2024. Click here to find out more and book your place. 

About the Author

Jennifer Forsyth is the Interim Programme Lead at Obesity Action Scotland

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