The CR0-besity problem: how can Croydon keep its new year get-slim resolutions?

By - Wednesday 8th January, 2014

Photo by FBellon. Used under Creative Commons Licence

Photo by FBellon. Used under Creative Commons Licence

So – how was it for you, the first week of January? You’ve cut out booze, maybe? Sworn to nibble fruit instead of chomping Hobnobs? Started cycling to work? (If so, be warned – in these parts that may not ensure longevity). Or perhaps the annual surge of optimism about changing your body, entire personality and lifestyle for good this time unseated your reason to the point of purchasing a gym membership, which outlay you will definitely make worthwhile by visiting at least three times a week?

Still, statistically speaking, if you’re reading this in Croydon you’re probably not in great shape. (If you are, you can stop now and nip down to the gym.)

‘So far, so dismal’ summarises Croydon’s response to the obesity epidemic

‘So far, so dismal’ is the best summary of Croydon’s response to the obesity epidemic. In 2009, Croydon Council and the NHS produced an ironically-titled strategic framework document, ‘Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives,’ setting out the problem and their intended response. Figures back then were worrying enough. 10.9% of children were entering Reception obese, while more than a third (35.8%) were obese by Year 6. By 2012, when a Croydon Children and Families Partnership report pinpointed ‘reducing obesity’ as a key target, obesity in Reception had risen to 11.1%, with over 12,000 obese children now living in Croydon.

HWHL found that 63,500 of adult residents are obese. This understates the problem as many more are overweight, also a risk to health. Two-thirds of the borough falls into the ‘overweight or obese’ category. It’s not going well for HWHL.

The healthy-living message pumps out, like liposuction deflating a saddle-bag

These statistics are peculiar, because we’ve never heard so many healthy-living messages or received so much encouragement. Lifestyle advice begins early in Croydon, with the news that your children are attending a ‘healthy school’. Closer inspection will reveal this to be more aspirational than actual – but still, the kids get the message.

There’s the Healthy Living Hub at Croydon Central Library. In bookshops, the ranks of dieting titles will have caught your eye, and surely no-one escapes the fat-horror TV shows, pumping out the message that junk food leads to obesity as vigorously as liposuction deflates a saddlebag? Twitter users can follow social-media-friendly slimming clubs. There’s a Weight Watchers app. Or for traditional face-to-face support, how about one of the 20 slimming clubs a week that meet in Croydon?

Obesity isn’t an information problem

How, in the midst of all this propaganda, can Croydon possibly be getting fatter? The disconnect is as massive as many of our waistlines. Obesity clearly isn’t an information problem, because information isn’t fixing it. My new year resolution is to ask open-mindedly what might.

I don’t start open-minded because I distrust slimming clubs. Let’s start with their statistics : not looking good. A review of 31 long-term diet studies by the University of California found two-thirds of dieters (by any method) heavier five years after dieting. A medical treatment leaving two-thirds of its patients worse would be discontinued at once. Others report between 80% and 97% regain it all.

My own estimate of failure rates is a fittingly-rounded 100%. Who is the slimmer who succeeds and never diets again? When so many end up fatter, it’s hard to accept that the weight-loss industry takes clients’ cash in good faith.

Croydon Slimming World caught my eye after an organiser contacted me wanting to feature in the Citizen. A change of plan followed, our meeting was cancelled and she became uncontactable. My criticisms are industry-wide, but investigating this club I noticed two things: its website promises that increasing activity levels ‘a fraction each day’ will bring ‘amazing results’ (which as an experienced exerciser I know to be untrue). Then throughout December it tweeted that ‘there’s still time to lose weight before Christmas’. That’s encouragement to crash diet before over-eating – a recipe for weight gain. So that you’ll pay your subs in January, perhaps?

There’s also the inescapable fact that obesity is linked with poverty. I searched the website for mention of this and found none – only an emphasis on personal responsibility.

Yet I also believe in personal responsibility. Croydon urgently needs a new approach on weight and health. So this January, my resolution is to think outside the box. Could the help we need come from slimming clubs? Assuming for a moment everyone had sufficient income and leisure time to sign up and choose their diet – what would Slimming World recommend for Croydon?

To change the way you eat is very hard

Firstly, the club recognises that eating represents complex things like cultural identity and nurture, as well as deeply-ingrained habit. To change how you eat is hard and requires ongoing support.

The club encourages awareness around food. That’s good , because too often we just don’t notice over-eating.

It gives affordable tips on how to reduce energy from food. Best of all are Slimming World’s Free Chips. I gave them a try and they were pretty good.

It doesn’t reprimand – rightly a total no-no. OK, so its term for ‘naughty foods to indulge in’ is ‘syns’, but humour and a bit of legitimate wickedness helps on worthy subjects.

Does Croydon want to shed flab? If we do, let’s treat the clubs like a twelve step programme whose attendees are encouraged to ‘take what you want and leave the rest’. I’ll take ‘eat carefully’ and add ‘get seriously active, take club hype with a pinch of low-sodium salt & (above all) stick at it’. Weight loss is a long game. Clubs: beware over-promising and de-feminise your message to get the men in.

Want a real war on obesity? Subsidise the clubs and get membership prescribed by GPs. (Sound unrealistic? Soaring weight-related diabetes costs the NHS £1.5 million per hour – 10% of its entire budget for England and Wales. Still opposed?).

We have to do something, and this could be a start. A happy and healthy new year to all Croydonians.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • Becca Taylor

    Interesting article, Liz, clearly know your Cronx weight stats. Quick question, on a personal level – your comment on increasing exercise levels ‘a fraction a day’ which you know are untrue. Perhaps I’ve just misread this, are you saying you know people need to do more to shift the weight that ‘a fraction’ or that you know exercise doesn’t work?

    Also, I think some GPs are now prescribing weight loss clubs – there’s certainly been talk in our office of friends who were prescribed Weight Watchers etc! Can’t imagine how embarrassing that would be…

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Hi there – yes, exercise definitely works but recommending increasing it by ‘a fraction’ is considerably more than misleading. For serious long-term weight control (unless you have a genetic predisposition not to store fat) you need to be very active very regularly. This is an extremely difficult sell to habitually sedentary people. I’m not labelling people lazy – I’m thinking of people on low incomes and time-poor people particularly.

      Even if you are genetically thin, your arteries can clog and all the rest of it, so skinny isn’t necessarily healthy, either. Fitness is highly advisable for everyone.

      Yes, I’m aware that GPs are starting to prescribe the clubs. I have mixed feelings about it – to be honest I didn’t expect to find anything positive to say about them, but I did so here it is…… there are positives. However, the evidence is that these clubs still fail far more of their members than they assist. Hence the approach I suggest.

      • Becca Taylor

        Presumably you’ve also seen ‘The Men Who Made Us Fat’ series on BBC2 last year? A lot of what he said was similar to your post – people have initial success and then revert back to old habits and see the weight pile back on. They then go back to the clubs, or the shakes diets, saying ‘it worked last time’.

        And yep, with you on the exercise. The stairs instead of the lift advice that gets churned out is a nice start, but it is just a start. Personally, it all changed for me when I started lifting weights and made genuine changes to the way I ate and didn’t ‘go on diets’ anymore – but it’ll take a few more Jennifer Lawrences in the world before that’s truly mainstream,

  • Austen

    Cycling (and walking) have the ability to make Croydon a really healthy place. Who says? Not just Croydon Cycling Campaign but the British Medical Association, in their landmark publication -Healthy transport = Healthy lives.

    Croydon lost out in its bid for a substantial chunk of Boris’s money to turn outer London boroughs into a mini-Holland (if you visit the Netherlands you can see why so many people of all ages and abilities cycle there – its been made safe and easy). There is still money available from Boris, the council’s own transport budget and developers, such as Westfield.

    What’s missing is political will, joined-up local government and cross-party commitment to achieving the targets to increase cycling in Croydon to the levels set by Boris and the London Assembly – but it can be done.

  • Terry Coleman

    When I was a lad we always walked to school and there was something called PT: ‘ Running on the spot Begiiiiiiin upupupup get those knees up’. Pretty basic diet in those days, food rationing of course, too.
    I can’t recall seeing many fat people about then.

    Those were the days.

  • PolarDog

    For the more mature Croydonian seeking to get a gentle workout in 2014, may I recommend the Body Harmony class run at the Sir Philip Game centre on a Tuesday morning and now in its 7th year?

    It is a low impact program that even people with serious health issues can perform without difficulty as each person works within their capabilities. The class is friendly – and fun as well.

    Details at: