Foster carers will probably be aware that the issue of childhood obesity has again hit the headlines. And this is despite figures from Public Health England that were reported on in 2018 that indicated a record number of primary school children were leaving school severely obese. That equated to over 22,000 children – the highest level since records were started. Prior to the figures that showed 1 in 25 10-to-11-year-olds were severely obese, the rates of childhood obesity had in the past been reasonably stable. More recent figures have shown that levels of severe obesity have over the last ten years been on a significant upward trend. Severe obesity is having a BMI (Body Mass Index) on or above the 99.6th percentile for a child’s age and gender.
The chief nutritionist at Public health England, Dr Alison Tedstone, stated such rising trends were:
“extremely worrying and have been decades in the making – reversing them will not happen overnight.” And that “bold measures are needed to tackle this threat to our children’s health.”
Foster parents perhaps more than ever need to be aware of how important it is that children lead physically active lives. One of the biggest threats to this happening in recent years is the lure the online world presents to children. It can be no coincidence that obesity rates have risen sharply over the last ten years – at the same time as access to smartphones and computers has increased dramatically. This means that children are eating much more sedentary lives. Previous generations spent time in the great outdoors being active. This generation in complete contrast is spending huge amounts of time indoors on digital devices. Very simply, excess body fat is accumulated when the energy gained from food is greater than the rate at which this energy is used up by physical activity. When this behaviour is combined with a poor diet – often of too much junk food – it is not surprising society is faced with such a problem.
It is common for fostering service providers to arrange organised activities through the long summer holidays. Certainly at this agency, through the work of our Youth Participation Officer, they are structured to make sure there is a high level of physical activity. Events are organised to take place in water parks – as well as a wide range of other venues that place a focus on physical activity. All foster cares should make sure that the children and young pole in their care attend as many of these events as possible. Foster carers should also be encouraging – as should all parents – their children to participate in sporting activities at school. And it doesn’t just have to be a sport: dance provides a great opportunity to keep fit whilst learning about a whole range of different musical styles and traditions. It is becoming increasingly important that carers support children to engage with the physical world and at the same time be encouraged to avoid sweets and high-fat snacks.
There is an important role for the government in this. And there definitely has to be as the consequences of failing to tackle an epidemic of obesity could have far the most far-reaching consequences. In short, it could mean the country runs out of money to pay for all the health services we need. As far back as May 2011, David Cameron, then prime minister, stated: “Take obesity: it already costs our NHS a staggering £4 billion a year, but within four years, the figures are expected to rise to £6.3.” And some more context – as obese children are likely to end up as being overweight or obese through life: what is now most concerning are the numbers of individuals now going beyond merely being overweight and becoming obese. The WHO (World Health Organisation) treats childhood obesity as an issue that will have effects on a global scale. The costs are quite astonishing: a recent report found that obesity was costing the country nearly £47bn annually. Obesity now has the second-largest economic impact on the UK after cigarette smoking. It has been responsible for a loss of 3% of GDP. And particularly alarming is the fact that around 2.1 billion people – approximately 30% of the world’s population – are overweight or obese.
By the year 2030, this figure is set to rise to nearly 50% of the world’s adult population. One million school children in the UK are now monitored by the NCMP – National Child Measurement Programme. Figures produced by this organisation, show that for 2014/15, 19.1% of Year 6 children (10-11 years) were obese with a further 14.2% being overweight: 9.1% of Reception children (4-5 years) were defined as obese with a further 12.8% being overweight. What foster carers should pay particular attention to is that these results reflect behaviour that can easily become a pattern carrying forward into adulthood.
It is not surprising that the government is now taking this issue extremely seriously. The Department of Health has introduced the second phase of its childhood obesity plan which has the aim of halving childhood obesity rates by 2030. An Officer for Health Promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Dr Max Davie, said that although the available data was “shocking” it was not surprising. He also said – “The Government’s childhood obesity plan is encouraging but if the policies within it are not quickly enacted, more children are going to face a life that’s limited in quality and expectancy.”
Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance recently is on the record saying that the government’s obesity plans need to be –
“fully and swiftly implemented – It’s very concerning that the number of children with a weight that is classified as severely obese is now at an all-time high. Children with obesity are five times more likely to have obesity as adults, putting them at risk of diseases including Type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease, as well as associated mental health conditions.”
The government is coming under pressure to do more as it has been reported in recent days that it will fail to meet its target of halving childhood obesity. Tough action is now being called for and this has now extended to the chief medical officer saying that eating on public transport should be banned. Professor Dame Sally Davies has demanded this extreme action from ministers in the face of this problem. She is also calling for much tighter regulation of food companies she sees as seeking to manipulate young people. As she leaves her post, she has also said that a great deal more action is required to prevent youngsters being “dazzled” by the junk food companies and, as she puts it, to stop children “drowning in a flood of unhealthy food and drink options.”
Carers need to be aware of how children are targeted by advertisers.
Foster carers, like all parents, are under siege. It is one of the most challenging things imaginable to make sure children are eating healthily when they are being targeted by the food industry. It has been found that because of increasing portion sizes and the easy availability of junk food, on average youngsters are consuming 3 unhealthy snacks – along with sugary drinks – daily. This amounts to the consumption of seven teaspoons of sugar.
In 2017 the amount spent on advertising junk food, sweets and soft drinks was £300m. By contrast, the amount spent on advertising fruit and vegetables was £16m. Children are especially vulnerable to sophisticated marketing and promotional techniques with adverts everywhere- as well as on mobile phones meaning youngsters have no escape. It is not surprising that over one million children have been diagnosed as clinically obese. This has led to some suffering from Type 2 diabetes, asthma as well as musculoskeletal pain. These children are also much more prone to mental health issues such as depression.
It may even be that childhood obesity results in more children being taken into care. Some experts are considering whether severely obese children should be removed from their parents. And this has happened in a limited number of cases. It may be that unless something is done, foster carers will increasingly find themselves being asked to look after obese children. More information on obesity is available at https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/
We are looking for some special people to foster with Rainbow.
There is a shortage of 8,000 foster families own the UK. But not everyone is suitable to become a foster parent. If you are thinking of fostering previous employment or experience – paid or unpaid – in children’s services is valuable – but not essential. Many children are coming into care having experienced trauma. This means it is valuable to have the ability to see beyond children’s behaviour and to link it to past trauma where relevant. We would especially like to hear from Applicants with experience of the previous fostering and/or close involvement with a family that is or has fostered.
But whatever your background or skills, the most important thing is that you want to do your very best to support a vulnerable child or young person. Fostering can be extremely challenging, but it can also be extremely rewarding.
Call us on 020 8427 3355. Alternatively, you can call us on our National Line 0330 311 2845. We have fostering career opportunities in London, Birmingham, Manchester and the Hampshire area.
Please take a look at our website. You will discover we address most if not all issues relating to fostering. Our blog and news sections provide plenty of general background.