The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has said he will consider introducing new laws to limit the amount of sugar, salt and fat in processed foods to curb childhood obesity but said he wanted to give supermarkets and manufacturers a chance to get their “house in order” before resorting to legislation.
The comments come after his Labour counterpart, Andy Burnham, announced a consultation on capping sugar and fat levels in food targeted at children. Hunt criticised the former health secretary for failing to tackle the problem while he was in power, and said Labour had left the nation with the highest childhood obesity rate in Europe.
He told ITV News: “My message to the supermarkets and the food manufacturers is that we will of course consider legislation. But we want to give you a chance to put your house in order and make sure that we are not shovelling sugar down the throats of young children and storing up problems for the future.”
A report by the Organisation for the Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that English children were the third fattest in Europe, after Italy and Greece – but almost twice as obese as the French. Almost 27% of girls in England were overweight and 23% of boys.
The OECD estimated that a comprehensive anti-obesity strategy in England would cost less than £12 per person and save 70,000 lives per year.
Earlier, Burnham said voluntary agreements with the food industry were not working, and that Labour was looking at legal limits setting maximum permitted levels of fat, sugar and salt in food aimed at youngsters, which could include a 30% cap on sugar in cereals.
Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being.
Immediate health effects:
Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as High cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
Obese adolescents are more likely to have prediabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a high risk for development of diabetes.
Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
Long-term health effects:
Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis. One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.
Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The shadow health secretary said: “It is clear that the current voluntary approach is not working. We need to open our minds to new approaches in tackling child obesity.
“Labour wants to lead this debate. That is why we are asking the public and experts if new limits for sugar, fats and salts would be the right approach.
What Causes Obesity in Children?
Children become overweight and obese for a variety of reasons. The most common causes are genetic factors, lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of these factors. Only in rare cases is being overweight caused by a medical condition such as a hormonal problem. A physical exam and some blood tests can rule out the possibility of a medical condition as the cause for obesity.
Although weight problems run in families, not all children with a family history of obesity will be overweight. Children whose parents or brothers or sisters are overweight may be at an increased risk of becoming overweight themselves, but this can be linked to shared family behaviors such as eating and activity habits.
A child’s total diet and activity level play an important role in determining a child’s weight. Today, many children spend a lot time being inactive. For example, the average child spends approximately four hours each day watching television. As computers and video games become increasingly popular, the number of hours of inactivity may increase.
What Diseases Are Obese Children at Risk For?
Obese children are at risk for a number of conditions, including:
High blood pressure
Early heart disease
Skin conditions such as heat rash, fungal infections, and acne
“Like all parents, I have bought products like cereals and fruit drinks, marketed as more healthy, that contained higher sugar levels than expected. I don’t think that any parent would be comfortable with their child eating something that is 40% sugar.
“The government has failed to come up with a convincing plan to tackle this challenge.”