Obesity in Children, and School Nutrition

Obesity has been receiving a lot of media attention recently with statistics showing that the problem is increasing at an alarming rate. Historically obesity has been exclusively seen as a problem of adults, becoming more prevalent with advancing age, however with children’s lifestyles becoming less and less active due to a number of factors, obesity in children is also on the rise. There have always been fat children but they were always an exception to the norm. Indeed fat children have been recognised in literature throughout the generations, with Charles Dickens’ portrayal of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers and Billy Bunter in the 20th century. However, they were notable because fat children were a rarity. Obesity is no longer uncommon in children and the problem of childhood obesity is spiralling out of control. In fact the problem is becoming so bad that there are now fears the current generation of children may be the first for centuries in whom their life expectancy will be lower than their parents. Considering the extent to which life expectancy levels increased over the 20th century, this is a substantial reversal.

o The Health Survey for England 20021 states that 16% of boys and girls aged 2 to 15 are obese with a total of 30% classified as either overweight or obese. A third of young adults are either overweight or obese (32% of young men and 33% of young women). In addition, 9% of young men and 12% of young women are actually obese.

o Several factors have now been shown to predict the development of obesity in individuals such as a family history of obesity, lifestyle, diet and socioeconomic factors.

Causes of Obesity in Childhood

There are a variety of factors that are attributed to this dramatic increase in childhood obesity cases. A reliance on cars is thought to be a major factor, with children more often driven to school than walking or cycling. A drastic decline in the amount of compulsory physical education in primary and secondary schools is almost certainly a contributor. An increasing reliance on computer games for entertainment in the younger generations is also cited as a major reason. In the past children would have sought entertainment from playing outdoors, engaging in more physical activity. Of course the streets have always been seen as a safer place for children to play in the past than they are now so it could be said that a reliance on computer games may be a reasonable response to social concerns.

However, bad eating habits have been identified as the major cause of childhood obesity. Increasing reliance on convenience food, a lack of proper nutrition in meals, an avoidance of fruit and vegetables and a rise in between-meal snacking are all common problems. A recent focus on unhealthy school meals by TV chef Jamie Oliver highlighted the problem of lack of nutrition in school meals. Pupils were able to buy junk food for lunch on a daily basis with no encouragement from the schools to look to more healthy alternatives. Thankfully since Jamie Oliver’s campaign for schools to take more responsibility for the provision of healthy school meals aired on the BBC, there has been a dramatic shift in the way the primary and secondary education sectors approach the provision of school meals. The government have also addressed the problem officially by releasing the ‘nutritional standards for schools’ – a set of nutritional guidelines that all primary and secondary schools most adhere to by September 2009.