Sarah Wollaston and Childhood Obesity

I’ve lived in London since 1993 and been a personal trainer for the last 13 years. In that time I’ve seen more and more obese people in our capital, particularly kids. Back when I was at school in Yorkshire, there was only one overweight boy in our class, and one overweight girl. Now, 1/3 of children leave school overweight or obese.

Childhood obesity was the subject of a House of Commons debate last week on Thursday 21 January 2016. Sarah Wollaston opened the debate, and the motion was “That this House calls on the Government to bring forward a bold and effective strategy to tackle childhood obesity.”

Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, is a medical doctor, and knows a thing or two about the severity of our obesity crisis. I think she’s right to focus on childhood obesity, because the earlier we intervene to improve people’s eating habits the better for their health, and the health of our nation. It was Winston Churchill who said that a healthy population is a country’s greatest asset, and I think he was right.

Sarah Wollaston opened her speech with a great analogy. She talked about Team GB and its preparation for Olympic success, based on the principle of “marginal gains” in every aspect of performance.

The same applies, she argued, to the fight against obesity. We need to be firing on all cylinders to beat the obesity epidemic, not just focus on one or two elements. As a personal trainer I often hear my London clients say when they first meet me to discuss weight loss: “it’s all about exercise” or “it’s all about diet”. I reply that it’s not all about any single thing, but a range of things, nutrition being the top priority.

Sarah Wollaston rightly said that any effective strategy to beat childhood obesity needs to take action on every single aspect. I can think of several key aspects: nutrition, exercise, environment, education, the role of supermarkets and food manufacturers and advertising, and the role of parents. Sarah Wollaston focused chiefly on the need for a tax on sugar specifically in soft drinks.

The problem with sugary drinks is that they are the easiest way to consume large amounts of excess sugar (being in liquid form with no need to chew), and that they are highly addictive (the sugar hits the bloodstream almost immediately), a dangerous combination.

One MP intervened in the debate to point out that excessive sugar consumption not only causes obesity in children but also tooth decay. Over 900 kids per week are admitted to hospital to have decaying teeth surgically removed. This is tragic. Jamie Oliver focused on the issue of childhood tooth decay in a recent TV documentary on the subject of sugar in children’s diets. Whatever the government is currently doing to tackle this problem, it is clearly not enough.

Mexico is a good example of a successful sugar tax policy, Sarah Wollaston explained. Since the introduction of a tax on sugary soft/fizzy drinks, there has been a 17% reduction in consumption among heavy users. She recommended that such a tax in the UK should be earmarked for good causes, in the same way as revenue raised by the plastic bag charge.

David Cameron has so far been opposed to a sugar tax, but surely the time has come to give a higher priority to the health of Britain’s kids, by taking bold action that has a proven track record of success in other countries.

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