Health professionals must identify children at risk of obesity at a much earlier age and offer families better support in combating poor lifestyle choices, according to a hard-hitting report by MPs.
The Commons’ health select committee has today called on the government to ensure that children’s weight data is accessible across different parts of the health and social care system.
“The consequences for these children are appalling and this can no longer be ignored”
A third of children are overweight with the poorest children three times more likely to be obese than counterparts by the age of 11, noted its new report – titled Childhood Obesity: Time for Action.
However, the MPs highlighted that there were problems in measuring and storing information on child obesity.
Their report quoted Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who said children’s weight data was not always easily available.
He stated: “They are measured exceptionally well by the national child measurement programme at four and at school leaving at 11, but between birth and four the data are in no particular place, sometimes in the parent’s red book, and after 11 there is no measurement.”
The select committee said a child’s GP should take primary responsibility for co-ordinating appropriate weight management advice and services.
“We continue to urge the government to reverse the cuts to council’s public health grants”
But it noted a further call from Professor Viner for a range of professionals, including nurses, to be more involved.
“We do not want a child to turn up at primary school at age four already overweight and obese,” he said in the report. “We want GPs, nurses or others to advise parents on when a child is going off trajectory, heading towards being overweight, and to guide them back.”
It is expected the government will soon publish a refreshed version of the childhood obesity plan, which was first published in the summer of 2016.
The health select committee said it was keen that the government listened to its findings, in particular the need for action on obesity to start at a much younger age.
The most excess weight gain before a child hits puberty occurs before the age of five and yet the government’s first childhood obesity plan was “troublingly lacking in early years provision”, said the report.
“This analysis should sound an alarm bell within Whitehall”
The MPs said that the first 1,000 days, from conception to a child’s second birthday, were crucial in setting a child on the path to a healthy lifestyle, the report said.
In “an ideal world”, funding would be higher but there were effective cost neutral steps that could be taken, said the committee members.
They cited NHS Champ, a partnership in Manchester that produces a digital growth chart for every child. Under the scheme, school nurses can weigh a whole primary school in the same time it used to take to weigh and two classes.
The committee also recommended setting targets to increase breastfeeding rates and called for training in the early years workforce to support parents and families to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
At a national level, the government should review the implementation of any new childhood obesity plan and set clear and ambitious targets for reducing overall levels of childhood obesity.
Meanwhile, the MPs said councils should be given more powers to limit the number of takeaways and there should be a 9pm watershed for junk food advertising.
Committee chair Dr Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, said: “Children are becoming obese at an earlier age.
“Obesity rates are highest for children from the most disadvantaged communities and this unacceptable health inequality has widened every year since records began,” she said. “The consequences for these children are appalling and this can no longer be ignored.”
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The Local Government Association welcomed the report and its recommendations.
“We continue to urge the government to reverse the cuts to council’s public health grants, which are restricting prevention and early intervention services carried out by councils to combat child obesity,” said Linda Thomas, the LGA’s vice chair community wellbeing board.
Sharon Hodgson, Labour’s shadow publich health minister said: “These are profoundly worrying findings.
“Instead of taking urgent action, the prime minister has merely offered a watered-down obesity strategy and continues to unsustainably slash local authority budgets,” she said.
Liberal Democrat health spokeswoman Judith Jolly said: “This analysis should sound an alarm bell within Whitehall.
“Healthy eating and lifestyle choices start in childhood but too many children are starting down the wrong path,” she added.