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Children: Obesity

Volume 768: debated on Tuesday 12 January 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that children, especially girls, grow up fit and healthy, in the light of the recent report on the dangers of obesity in women in adult life.

My Lords, tackling obesity and creating a fit and healthy society, particularly in girls and boys, is one of our major priorities. As we have previously said, we will be publishing our comprehensive childhood obesity strategy in the new year, and we will be doing so shortly.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. As he said, childhood obesity has become the biggest public health challenge in the UK, with nearly a third of our 10 year-olds overweight. High sugar consumption means tooth decay and is the most common cause of hospital admissions among five to nine year-olds. Half of seven year-olds have less than an hour of daily exercise, and we all know that obesity and inactivity lead to major adult health problems. Shockingly, 29% of UK children are overweight as mothers risk having overweight children. What are the Government doing to address the educational and environmental factors that are causing this obesity crisis? Will they start by urgently introducing a mandatory sugar reduction target applicable to all firms in the food and drink industry?

My Lords, we all recognise, as does the Prime Minister, that obesity is a scourge in this country that affects many thousands of young people. Some 2.1 billion people worldwide are overweight or obese, so it is a huge global problem that requires a comprehensive strategic response. I hope that our obesity strategy will be announced in the very near future.

My Lords, in developing this strategy, is his department talking to the Department for Education? He will understand that this is a particular issue at primary school level. There is evidence that the incessant determination of the Government to test primary school children at every age at every moment is squeezing the curriculum of playtime and physical activity. I hope that his department will talk to the Department for Education to turn this around.

My Lords, we have got to have a collective response to the obesity problem across many government departments, as the all-party parliamentary group made clear in its paper. Education is a critical part of that. The noble Lord will know that in the spending review the Government committed to continue the PE and sports premium in primary schools because we recognise that physical exercise and playtime at all levels in schools, but particularly in the early years, are vitally important.

My Lords, I recommend to my noble friend that sport may be the panacea for many of the problems mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Benjamin. A new strategy for sport which targets young primary school children has just been issued, but does my noble friend agree that this dreadful problem needs a cross-departmental approach involving health, environment and transport, including cycling and walking? We should not spread the butter too thin as far is sport is concerned—or perhaps I should say the low-fat spread in this instance.

My Lords, my noble friend is right that we have to involve all departments. For example, she mentioned the environment. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that urban and educational environments can be designed so that children spend more time walking. The development of cycleways in London is another example of how we can design our environment to improve the level of physical exercise that we take.

Can the Minister outline what is being done specifically in relation to women in pregnancy, given that excessive weight gained in pregnancy, which is often linked to the phrase “eating for two”, is very difficult to lose afterwards, particularly if women do not breastfeed? Moreover, postnatal depression can itself be a cause of excessive eating after delivery of the baby, causing the maintenance or even aggravation of obesity. That requires specific services to target these women.

The noble Baroness will know that the report of the Chief Medical Officer which came out two or three weeks ago laid particular stress on the importance of women who are pregnant because of the impact of obesity not just on themselves but on their children as well. Advice is available through NHS Choices, Start4Life and Healthy Start; we have various schemes that are focused on pregnant women. I am sure that we can do more, and perhaps when the government strategy on obesity is announced in the near future, it will address that issue as well.

My Lords, given that homo sapiens is a species that is programmed to eat carbohydrate and fat, what estimate have the Government made of how much childhood obesity is due to epigenetic factors rather than simply eating sugar and carbohydrate later on in life? Might this not be programming earlier in the generation perhaps as the result of previous generations’ environment? This is an essential point in understanding obesity.

The noble Lord makes an interesting point to which I cannot give an answer from the Dispatch Box. It is clear that epigenetic factors are important. It is not just about behaviour: rather, it is also the genes that we have inherited from our forebears and the fact that we have entirely different nutrition and an entirely different way of life today from that of 70,000 years ago. Would it be all right if I write to the noble Lord and explain that more fully?