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Childhood Obesity Plan is just the start of the conversation, not the final word

4 min read

Behaviour change is extraordinarily difficult, and no challenge is greater than making healthy habits easier for the nation, says Health Minister, Steve Brine MP. 

Last month I visited Amsterdam and met its deputy mayor, Eric Van De Burg. I was there to talk about one of the biggest challenges facing our respective healthcare systems: namely, how we turn the corner on rising rates of obesity and associated diseases like diabetes.

The numbers, we know, are frightening. Obesity now causes roughly one in every ten deaths in this country, with one study from Cancer Research UK showing that eating better and moving more could prevent up to 40 per cent of cases in the future. More than 2,500 people a week could avoid cancer as a result. So it is not for nothing that obesity is being described as “the new smoking.”

The problem starts early – with one in five children now overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school. These odds are twice as high for a child growing up in a deprived area.

And we know that obese children are highly likely to become obese adults—which is why our world-leading obesity strategy targets specific interventions designed to address obesity in young people. 

Of course, behaviour change is extraordinarily difficult, and no challenge is greater than making healthy habits easier for the nation. Yet over in Amsterdam, they are taking the fight to obesity and seem to be winning.  They have achieved the extraordinary feat of cutting child obesity by 12% in barely half a decade. And impressively, the biggest results are among the most deprived children in the city. So how have they done it?

Firstly, I was struck by the ethos of those leading the programme that any solution must be approached like a marathon, not a sprint. The city’s obesity targets stretch to 2033, with a ‘half-marathon’ checkpoint in 2022 to review progress. This reflects what we know to be the case for this country as well, that the sort of step change needed cannot be won on quick fixes, but rather requires sustained commitment to a holistic strategy and clear outcomes.

Secondly, what is striking about Amsterdam’s experience is the success they’ve had in galvanising a genuine, whole-of-community response to a shared problem.  Three hundred people from the community have joined the programme as local ambassadors, driving change and reaching thousands in hard-to-reach communities through local events like healthy cooking workshops for children.

Businesses, schools, families and religious leaders—who are able to give advice at important life stages like marriages, birth and baptism—are all signed up to this collective responsibility for the health of the city’s young people. They are proving that when everyone gets involved, it can make a real difference.

Back in this country, we are seeing some movement in getting the right players on board and, I hope, building that critical mass to enable real change. Since we announced our plan in 2016, retailers and manufacturers like Tesco and Kellogg’s have signalled that they have the appetite to work with us on reducing calorie and sugar consumption. 

Just a few weeks ago, Nestlé, one of the biggest global producers of packaged foods, announced that they’d found new scientific methods to reduce sugar in their chocolate by 30%, without changing the taste.  This kind of radical innovation is not only possible thanks to new technology—it reflects a changing preference from customers, who have consistently said they want healthier food and drink to be more easily available.

We have also seen startling progress from companies who have voluntarily reduced the amount of sugar in their products ahead of the soft drinks industry levy coming into effect.

Around half of all soft drink products that fall under the levy have drastically reduced sugar and some, like Lucozade, who invited me to visit their lab earlier this year, have taken an industry lead and cut the sugar in their drinks by half. 

This levy is already funding sports programmes in schools and, as of March this year, will provide £26 million to pay for nutritious breakfast clubs at over 1,700 schools in the country. This is action targeted at the most disadvantaged areas and is the sort of joined up thinking that that has proved so successful over the Channel.

But there is no question that there is more to do. We are continuing to work with industry, the NHS, national and local government and the charity sector to build upon our comprehensive Childhood Obesity Plan.

As we’ve always said, our plan is just the start of the conversation, not the final word.

In the spirit of Amsterdam, the marathon is far from over for us—and, while we have made a strong start, we will need to up the pace in the years ahead to achieve the results we need.


Steve Brine is Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health and Primary Care. He is Conservative MP for Winchester.

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