Reducing childhood obesity – a first for the UK 

Leeds has become the first city in the UK to see levels of childhood obesity fall, particularly in more deprived areas. It has achieved this by taking approaches that our research has suggested have worked in other countries, including: 

  • The importance of the early years, rather than waiting till children have started school.
  • Training staff working with pre-school children (like health visitors and children’s centre workers) so they can promote health eating.
  • Working closely with parents on a sustained basis (in Leeds through the Henry programme, which includes all aspects of family life, including parenting, family relationships, emotional wellbeing, family routines, nutrition and physical activity).  

The Henry programme helps parents develop the ability to set and maintain boundaries that matter for their children's health, including what, when and how their children eat, how active they are and how much time they spend in front of screens. 

Henry encourages authoritative parenting, where parents make clear they are in charge while providing their children with an element of choice. For example, instead of being asked what vegetable they want with dinner, children might be asked whether they would like carrots or broccoli. Instead of being told to go to bed, they are asked where they want to read their bedtime story.

We hope more cities will follow the example set by Leeds (and the successful examples of programmes in France, the Netherlands, Australia and Denmark) - and that the government will actively support such initiatives.

Preventing childhood obesity - what we can learn from other countries

If powerful forces are fuelling obesity then we need powerful forces to push back. This was one of the messages from our Director, Michael Baber, in his talk at Food Matters Live  at the Excel Centre in London on November 22nd.

He explained how 'whole systems' approaches in four different countries had succeeded in reducing levels of childhood obesity. For example they assembled a powerful coalition of stakeholders and applied a range of approaches, including social marketing and linking prevention and healthcare (something we're not very good at yet in the UK).

The four examples Michael focused on were:

  • Romp & Chomp - a 4 year pilot project with 12,000 children in the Australian city of Geelong.
  • EPODE (Ensemble Prevenons l'Obesite Des Enfants) - which originated in France but is now being applied in parts of Belgium, Spain, Greece, Australia and Mexico.
  • JOGG (Jongeren op Gezond Gewicht) - building on the EPODE model this is now in place in over a hundred towns and cities in the Netherlands, with probably the best known example being in Amsterdam, whose success in reducing childhood obesity has generated significant media coverage.
  • TCOCT (The Children's Obesity Clinic Treatment Protocol) - a hospital-based approach, which originated in the Danish town of Holbaek, and has achieved success, in part by giving parents practical suggestions to help their children manage obesogenic environments.

Michael also explained the potential of Elected Mayors to make progress here in the UK, if the government were to make a Tackling Obesity Fund available, and the potential to use social marketing to influence the behaviour of food and drink companies, not just consumers.