Jamie Oliver and Childhood Obesity in London

Earlier this year, celebrity chef and healthy food campaigner Jamie Oliver appeared before the Childhood Obesity Strategy Committee, a Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Dr Sarah Wollaston MP.

Jamie Oliver is passionate about healthy eating for kids, and as a personal trainer in London I feel the same way. It’s tragic to see parents giving their kids cans of Red Bull in the street, or to see kids wolfing down crisps and drinking Coca Cola on the way to school.

Sugar Rush

In Jamie Oliver’s recent Channel 4 documentary Sugar Rush, he meets 6 year old Mario who needs 6 rotting teeth extracting after years of eating sugary cereals and drinking sugary soft drinks. The operation requires a general anaesthetic, and the pain and trauma for the kids when they wake from these procedures makes you wonder why their parents let them get to that stage. Jamie highlighted the fact that Mario regularly brushed his teeth, which shows that brushing your teeth is not enough to guard against tooth decay: you need to stop eating and drinking so much sugar in the first place.

Jamie Oliver supports a sugar tax on sugary soft drinks, something the Prime Minister David Cameron opposes, and something the food industry lobbies hard to prevent.

In another episode, Jamie Oliver visits a diabetes clinic and meets Julian whose type 2 diabetes (caused by lifestyle choices) got so badly out of control that he had to have his foot amputated. Jamie discovers that there are 7,000 foot amputations of type 2 diabetic patients per year in the UK.

Jamie also explores the issue of sugar in so-called healthy breakfast cereals. Bran Flakes are heavily marketed as being good for you, but a “man sized portion” (Jamie’s words) contains 5 teaspoons of sugar, which is 2og. So-called healthy yoghurts typically have 3 teaspoons of sugar per portion.

Jamie Oliver’s evidence to the Select Committee

Jamie talked about the need for NHS spending to focus on “proactive outreach” to prevent kids becoming obese, and to help already obese kids achieve a healthy weight.  He pointed out that France has a well-established proactive public health policy to tackle obesity, which the UK still lacks.

Jamie said that parents often struggle to give their kids healthy choices, and added that the school lunch box was evidence of this: Red Bull, Coca-Cola, sugary sweets, crisps. He emphasised the importance of a sugar tax as a symbolic statement to show that the government has the health and wellbeing of Britain’s children as a higher priority than protecting the profits of the junk food industry. “Government has a duty of care to Britain’s kids” he said.

On the subject of food labelling, Jamie Oliver said the most effective way was to label amounts of sugar in terms of the number of teaspoons, which everyone can easily relate to. One teaspoon is 4g of sugar. “The industry hates this,” he added, because if it was clear how much sugar was in coke, cereals, and yoghurts, the public would think twice about buying them, or at least so much of them.

Jamie Oliver also pointed out the shameful lack of online regulation, where the junkfood industry gets round the restrictions of TV advertising by moving their promotions online. He welcomed the introduction last year of compulsory food education for primary school kids, but called for more education which has an “empowering” effect on children’s food choices.

David Cameron

The Prime Minister claims to be serious about tackling childhood obesity, but as long as he puts the profits of the junk food industry before the nation’s health, there is no chance of producing an effective set of anti-obesity policies.

He said recently, “the most disturbing figure is that 10% of children enter primary school obese, and 20% leave primary school obese.” Clearly not disturbing enough to introduce a sugar tax, or to increase funding for sports facilities for state schools, or to increase the number of hours of compulsory activity in the school day, or to curb the junk food’s advertising to kids online.

George Freeman, Life Sciences Minister, raised the idea of a sugar tax, but it is unlikely tyo become law.

Jamie Oliver met the Prime Minister in Downing Street together with Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, and Jame Ellison (Public Health Minister) to discuss obesity strategy.

Meanwhile McKinsey & Company conducted a study which found that obesity and its related medical conditions costs the UK economy around £47 billion per annum. You would think that even on a cold financial analysis of the situation it is blindingly obvious that we need to create an effective strategy which includes a sugar tax, but successive governments have repeatedly refused to do this for the last few decades.

London Mayor and childhood obesity

Back in April 2011 the London Assembly’s Health & Public Services Committee produced a report: Tipping the Scales, Childhood Obesity in London. Its terms of reference were to review the Mayor’s role in tackling obesity in young Londoners (age 0-15) through encouraging good nutrition and more physical activity.

Back in 2011 there were 240,000 obese children in London, a sharp rise in obesity over the 15 years leading up to the report. The report concluded that there was a strong link with economic deprivation and parental obesity. Lack of access to green space and lack of fresh fruit & veg retailers was also highlighted.

This is strange, because one of the most economically deprived London Boroughs, Newham, has a huge amount of green space for children to get active (Wanstead Flats, Plashet Park, Central Park, West Ham Park, Flanders Road Playing Fields, Roman Road Playing Fields) and probably hundreds of “pound a bowel” fruit and veg outlets throughout the borough.

So clearly it’s something else that’s the main cause of childhood obesity in the poorest London boroughs: probably the huge amount of sugary drinks and junk food children eat. But this was very much down-played in the report. In the 4 years since this report, obesity levels among London’s children have risen still further.

Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of the Fitness4London.com blog.