Dr Malindi Haggett, Health Scientist and Clinical Adviser, Dr Helen Brown, Senior Advisor, Behavioural Insights Team and Rebecca Sunter, Portfolio Manager, Guy's and St Thomas' Charity
Sep 30, 2019
While childhood obesity rates are high in inner London, the evidence shows there are solutions to improving children’s health.
Behavioural science tells us that consuming unhealthy food is often an automatic response to environmental cues, rather than an issue of willpower. So, to have real impact on children’s health, it’s important to concentrate on the environments where young people and their families spend the most time. A key environment is the school setting.
Children and young people spend a large part of their lives at school and have at least one meal a day there. This makes schools the ideal environment to promote healthy food options and physical activity. As it stands, schools in the UK have a responsibility to provide fresh, healthy food throughout the day.
Here’s what the evidence tells us works to tackle childhood obesity in schools:
By involving everyone in healthy eating and physical activity, you're more likely to have a lasting effect on children's health. This means initiatives that filter across all aspects of school life have the biggest impact on reducing childhood obesity. For example, research shows that it's important to make sure initiatives are underpinned by strong leadership, staff modelling healthy behaviours, access to sports facilities and equipment, and the provision of extra-curricular physical activities.
Research shows that simple steps can significantly increase healthy eating in schools. For example, giving less prominence to or removing unhealthy options altogether and presenting healthy choices attractively in the school canteen. A further study shows that successful programmes last for at least one academic year and include regular provision of fruit and vegetables by school food services. Also, embedding programmes into the wider curriculum, such as adding periods of light physical activity to scheduled lessons and promoting active travel to and from school, is key.
We know that schools are required to provide traditional standalone food education programmes as part of the national curriculum, and that some also run vegetable growing programmes. While these are helping to raise awareness of good eating habits, the evidence shows they have a limited impact on tackling childhood obesity. In large part, this is because knowledge of healthy eating may not translate into practice. Even when children and families know what the healthy option is, their consumption day to day is influenced by environmental factors. For example, the food options that are available on the streets near their homes and schools, and whether there is ample space to run and play.
We are working with schools and partners to test and roll out changes across local schools to address childhood obesity in Lambeth and Southwark.
Research shows there is a clear link between an area’s average income and obesity. Five-year olds from the least affluent areas are twice as likely to be obese compared to those in the most affluent areas. By age 11, they are three times more likely to be overweight.
Our goal is to help more children achieve and keep a healthy weight by reducing the gap between the most affluent and least affluent areas by 25%. There is a great opportunity for schools in Lambeth and Southwark to take the lead on introducing this evidence base to their initiatives. We’ve already seen a lot of willingness among school leaders and teachers in areas of Lambeth and Southwark to help improve children’s health locally. We are looking forward to continuing to co-develop and support projects in local schools over the next few years.
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30 June, 2020
Our Programme Director, Sarah Hickey, shares how we’re collaborating with the commercial sector to tackle the inequality that prevents children from accessing nutritious food.