This week (July 7-13) is National Childhood Obesity Week - seven days aimed at raising awareness of the dangers of being above a healthy weight during childhood.
A whole week to highlight this terrifying issue - that's great. But of course, if we are going to tackle the obesity crisis that threatens to dramatically shorten the lives of far too many of our children, we need to focus seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.
And, while work is already underway in Birmingham, like towns and cities across the UK, we still have a long, long way to go.
It's widely acknowledged that we've reached crisis point. But just to illustrate the scale of the problem in our city, consider these two shocking statistics:
- 1 in 4 of our children are obese by the time they leave primary school.
- The projected financial cost of obesity to our City will amount to £2.6 billion per year by 2050 – that is the equivalent of 13.5 new Libraries of Birmingham.
So what are we doing about the problem?
There is no simple, single solution; the achievement of tackling obesity in Birmingham will require considerable leadership and effort as well as the appropriate use of resources.
A coordinated effort to impact on childhood obesity at all levels is crucial, this includes policy change, partnerships, communications as well as specific interventions. The three factors driving our obesity epidemic can be summarised as:
- Environment - we have an environment that encourages low physical effort, with more car journeys at the expense of walking etc. We have allowed unhealthy food options to proliferate in our society, often at the expense of healthy options, especially close to schools.
- Behaviour - we have adopted behaviour that complements our environment, especially concerning eating high-calorific foods. This is often driven by evidence-based marketing.
- Opportunity - we have developed few opportunities for children to undertake appealing physical exertion or enjoy healthy food options, especially early in life.
Earlier this year, the City Council approved a wide-ranging Childhood Obesity Strategy and the success of that strategy will depend of a range of measures - some big, some small.
Initiatives like the Startwell programme are starting to have an impact by encouraging parents and their children to develop good habits from early life.
Bambams Pre-school in Sheldon delivers the Startwell Programme and every week the children work on a range of healthy eating tasks - including regular cookery lessons.
The audio files below give a clear indication of just how successful and popular this initiative is proving to be and hopefully these children and their parents will go on to develop far healthier relationships with food and nutrition.
Through Startwell the children at Bambams and other schools and nurseries are moving in the right direction and, while the rate of obese children leaving Primary School stubbornly remains the same (for now) we have seen a fall in the rate of children starting their school life with weight problems.
This issue will not be tackled by health professionals alone though. With public health now a local government responsibility, we're working closely with other council departments to address some of the issues that contribute to our obesogenic environment.
One great example is the work with planners. We now limit the number of hot food takeaways to no more than 10 per cent of units in any shopping area and, since the policy was introduced in 2012, the planning department has had 36 applications for hot food takeaways, 21 of which were approved while 15 were refused.
We're also working with existing fast-food businesses, encouraging them to add healthy options to the menu.
Physical activity will also play a part and here Birmingham leads the way as initiatives like Be Active and Active Parks encourage people of all ages to life healthier and more active lives. Physical inactivity is after all another major public health crisis.
Many others factors will also play a big part in any future success. Government policy, the co-operation of the food industry, shifts in public attitudes and behaviourâ€¦ The list could go on.
There will be no overnight success here. After all, the crisis we see today is the result of decades of moving in the wrong direction.
Our task is a daunting one but failing to act is not an option and we're up for the fight in Birmingham. Are you?