Tackling childhood obesity in Croydon

By - Thursday 21st January, 2016

Croydon has a big problem, writes Robert Ward

Croydon has a childhood obesity problem. According to figures from the National Child Measurement Programme released by Public Health England almost four out of ten of our Year 6 children are overweight. More than half of those were considered obese. This is not a new phenomenon. The most recent data, published last month for 2014/2015, show little has changed since the first figures I can find, from 2006/2007.

As London boroughs go, we are in the middle of the pack, but that should be no comfort. In contrast to the situation in the United States, where childhood obesity is more prevalent in rural areas, in England the worst areas are in cities like London: places like Croydon.

It is an important issue and one for which a good deal of data is available, so worth running the metaphorical slide rule over to get a Croydon perspective. The data is available at varying levels of detail and is not presented in the exactly the same way for each period. That’s not uncommon. Given that the Croydon figures haven’t changed much, I chose the most recent detailed dataset, which is from 2013/2014.

Broad Green, New Addington, Selhurst and Thornton Heath all show Year 6 obesity levels above 25%

Comparing statistics across Croydon we see straightaway that there is a considerable range. The data shown above is the proportion of children in Year 6 who were considered obese, but comparing the other parameters such as those who are just overweight, or comparing the situation at the reception stage show a similar pattern.

Broad Green, New Addington, Selhurst and Thornton Heath all show Year 6 obesity levels above 25%, so one child in four. Fairfield and West Thornton are only just below that. Even our ‘best’ ward, Sanderstead, shows 12.5% obesity, or one child in eight, at the same age.

This pattern of more affluent areas having lower obesity levels is typical across England. This is different from my childhood when although I cannot find authoritative data, my firm recollection is that being overweight was a rarity and poorer children were more likely to be thinner rather than fatter.

Lack of exercise and poor diet are obvious root causes that need to be addressed

We can also see that the pattern is set at an early age. Comparing Year 6 obesity levels with the proportion of children who are merely overweight at the reception stage shows a very strong match. We cannot guarantee from this data that the overweight children at reception are the same children who will be obese at Year 6, although Public Health England could. I think it is a good working assumption that they are.

Understanding weight gain is not rocket science. The human body is a complex organism but weight gain or loss is largely determined by some combination of diet and exercise. Eat too much and exercise too little and you will gain weight, do the opposite and you will lose it. Lack of exercise and poor diet are obvious root causes that need to be addressed if we are to start to solve the problem.

Public Health England has also presented some data on the availability of fast food outlets. A correlation between the density of fast food outlets per 100,000 population and deprivation score is included in the report. This I find a rather odd and unscientific intervention.

As for exercise, Croydon is well blessed with green spaces

Correlation does not imply causation. For example, I was able to show a good correlation between the prevalence of childhood obesity and the proportion of Labour voters. Voting Conservative has many benefits, but curing childhood obesity is not one of them…

There are no simple solutions here. Improving diet, and in particular less fast food, and increased exercise are clear objectives but how to achieve this is less clear. Reducing fast food outlets in areas of higher deprivation might just increase the queues at those that remain; closing them might reduce consumption, but the effect is likely to be short lived and marginal. Making poorer people walk further to get their burgers just won’t cut it.

Long term success requires children and parents to make different choices on the type of food, the size of portions and exercise frequency. Croydon is well blessed with green spaces so for someone like me (as a child, I saw everything as a potential goalpost) it is hard to see why the exercise problem can’t be solved.

We need cheap, healthy eating options in places where childhood obesity is prevalent. Boxpark needs to set a good example

The dietary issue seems the more challenging. Croydon Council has been making efforts in this regard, for example through the Healthy Schools programme and the Food Flagship Borough Project.

However, the fact that the problems are evident in reception age children gives a clue. It is parents with young children who can have the biggest impact. Parental education is needed.

But we also need cheap, healthy eating options in places where childhood obesity is prevalent. The new Boxpark needs to set a good example in Fairfield but we need a wider distribution.

So to all you budding entrepreneurs out there, Broad Green, New Addington, Thornton Heath and elsewhere are your opportunity. Councillors recently welcoming Costa Coffee to Thornton Heath would I am sure be just as welcoming to healthy food outlets.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

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  • Robert Ward

    Apologies. This is missing a figure. Will sort something out as quickly as I can.

  • blath8@googlemail.com

    Aspects that stand out for me are how pretty much all children will be happily entertained by any gadget with a screen, which is a lot less effort and takes no time from busy parents, as opposed to physical exercise. Going to the park and sports in schools are free but for any family on a low income, most other sporty options aren’t an option – swimming, dancing, football, anything really, all cost. Any parent who has tried to detach their child from a gadget will probably have met varying levels of opposition …. I can see why sometimes it’s a fight not worth having.

    Our taste buds delight in sugary, salty, fatty foods and these often come wrapped around chunks of carbohydrates like chips, which are stored as fats if not burned off by exercise. Most of these foods are cheaper and more easily accessible than healthier options, they also often take less time to prepare. The idea of junk foods being taxed more heavily (sugar tax) is an interesting one. Children are taught in school what constitutes a healthy diet, but that doesn’t mean they will follow it, even if it were in their control (they don’t do the shopping, however lucky or unlucky this might be). Offer 100 children a piece of fruit and a chocolate bar and which one do you think they will go for first? Many may only make one choice and leave the fruit, even though they know it’s better for them. Are adults any better?

    • lizsheppardjourno

      Like you, blath8, I totally understand parents who are not able to create as active a lifestyle for their children as they know they should have. Let them play in the street outside – as they should be able to do – and you’re nowadays regarded as a neglectful parent: whether or not you are one is more complicated and does rather depend on the type of street: I support the Play Streets campaign and 20 mile an hour speed limits in built-up areas for this reason.

      Taking children anywhere other than the park (and see again my comments about the streets regarding attitudes to unsupervised play) immediately costs money.

      In the summer holidays Croydon children can swim free in public pools; I recently asked if this applied to other holidays, but it doesn’t.

      Then there are the more complex issues your raise about conflict with your children. Conflicts over food are difficult for parents to deal with in any situation: a child who rejects food distresses its primary carer, almost certainly its mother, and wars at the dinner table are harrowing. Like you, I can easily understand how those with already challenging lives and problems (poor accommodation, low income, lack of work and so on) don’t have the ability to accept and deal with such conflict that the better-off do.

      Poor quality food is much, much cheaper and children will always eat it. If you can’t waste money, what else would you buy? If they eat little else, then they will resist eating anything else and the problem is locked in.

      Liking and respecting the author as I do, this piece really amounts to the question: why, since it’s easy, can’t everyone behave as certain groups already do? There are many reasons.

      • Robert Ward

        Thanks Liz and Blath8.

        I accept that this is long on analysis but short on solutions. You can only do so much in 850 words. My point is that the data shows the problem is already there at reception age. A child of four has its choices made for it so we have a parenting issue.

        I do not accept that somehow life is so much more difficult now. Parenting is and always was difficult, but possibly the most important aspect is showing the child where the boundaries are and maintaining them. That has not changed.

        Dinner table arguments about food are no different from those that I had with my children and that my parents had with me. No you are not going to have fish fingers, beans and chips every day echoes down the years. This may distress the parent – my younger son consistently refused medicine when he was ill and I was beside myself, but that is what goes with the territory.

        In the 1960s the same arguments and the same battles that are now being fought about computer games were being made about television. Once you have consistently given in then it is a tough road back, on food and much else. These arguments are mirrored across income groups.

        Education of parents and improved parenting skills are the way forward. How to be effective in achieving that is where the debate should be.

        • Anne Giles

          We were not allowed television at all, or pop music. We had books – a library with 4,000 books. Every night, after supper, my father would read us a story. We never saw baked beans, chips or fish fingers and simply ate what was put in front of us. I got used to occasionally shoving food from my plate onto the napkin on my lap and then throwing it away. My parents never knew. I needed to leave room for the pudding, which I would not be allowed to have unless I finished the main course. We had proper meals lunchtime and again in the evening, all seated round the dining room table and we could not get up from the table without permission. Cooked breakfast – eggs, etc. was only on Sundays. Cake for tea only on Sundays, but afternoon tea after school was tea with lots of bread, butter and jam.