The pervasive message of Professor Ashley Adamson’s public lecture entitled “Childhood Obesity; they should do something about that” was to disregard an imagined ‘them’, and instead remember that it is all of us who are responsible in the battle against childhood obesity. As part of the University’s acclaimed Insights lecture series, Adamson discussed the economic impact of obesity and reminded the shocked audience exactly why childhood obesity matters, and why we all need to fight it.
Professor Ashley Adamson is a Professor of Public Health Nutrition at Newcastle University, and leads a research team at the Human Nutrition Research Centre. With the aid of various studies conducted by the centre, she presented a compelling case on the prevalence of childhood obesity in the UK and the ways in which it can be prevented. The lecture began by hitting the audience with the facts. In the UK, one in five children in reception class are of an unhealthy weight. By the time children leave school aged eleven, this figure has risen to one in three.
If concern for social ramifications of obesity was not enough to illustrate the necessity of change, then the damning economic costs presented certainly were. Obesity-related healthcare, including that of type two diabetes, constitutes 6% of the NHS’ entire budget. It costs us £27 billion per annum, more than is spent on the police, fire and judicial services combined. Such large spending emphasised the necessity of preventing obesity so that treatment for related illnesses is not necessary.
The lecture showed that childhood obesity is often overlooked as temporary ‘puppy fat.’ The Gateshead Millennium Study, a long-term research project following child health in the North East, found that 95% of parents of overweight children, and 44% of parents of obese children, considered their children a healthy weight. It is argued that overweight is now increasingly seen as normal, which blinds us to the prevalence of obesity amongst children. There is a misconception that children will lose this weight as they grow, when in fact many people who are overweight as children continue to have such problems in adolescence and adulthood.
Professor Adamson presented three options. As a nation we can wait for diseases associated with obesity to occur and spend NHS resources treating them. Secondly, we can support adults and families for change through campaigns such as ‘Change 4 Life’. The final option is to actively prevent obesity and its associated risks, so that treatment is not necessary. The most effective option was clear, particularly after Professor Adamson’s jarring reminder of the economic costs of obesity.
The lecture went on to discuss the necessity of transforming the foodscape as a key step in prevention. Adults in the UK consume 29% of their meals in food outlets; the availability of smaller portions in such establishments will therefore aid healthier, lower-calorie food choice. The Human Nutrition Research Centre has worked with local fish and chip shops in the North East to create smaller portion sizes, available at all times of day, to all customers. Such intervention was seemingly effective; the number of calories per portion was halved and the smaller portions actually made a larger profit per portion and were thereby beneficial for the companies.
The pressures of the food environment were acknowledged, including the placement of sweet treats near the checkouts and the abundance of promotional sales. Promotions in Britain, such as BOGOF deals (Buy One Get One Free), are at the highest in Europe and constitute 40% of all the food and drink we purchase. Adamson emphasised the importance of working with supermarkets to rearrange products to limit such impulse purchases. Disincentives were presented as a final option to force the commercial sector to make changes and help people to limit their sugar and fat intake. The sugar tax, for example, was introduced in 2017 and caused many soft drink companies to cut levels of sugar in ways they had previously insisted were impossible.
Professor Adamson concluded with a poignant metaphor; the NHS can either pull people out of the water as they drown, or we can build a bridge to prevent such drowning in the first place.