The city of Amsterdam is leading the world in ending the obesity epidemic, thanks to a radical and wide-reaching programme which is getting results even among the poorest communities that are hardest to reach.
Better known for tulips and bicycles, Amsterdam has the highest rate of obesity in the Netherlands, with a fifth of its children overweight and at risk of future health problems.
The programme appears to be succeeding by hitting multiple targets at the same time – from promoting tap water to after-school activities to the city refusing sponsorship to events that take money from Coca Cola or McDonalds.
It is led by a dynamic deputy mayor with the unanimous backing of the city’s politicians. From 2012 to 2015, the number of overweight and obese children has dropped by 12%. Even more impressive, Amsterdam has done what nobody else has managed, because the biggest fall has been amongst the lowest socio-economic groups.
It is in neighbourhoods like the Bijlmer in the south-east that the programme is changing lives. The Bijlmer is notorious, says Wilbert Sawat, coordinator and PE teacher at De Achtsprong primary school, and that’s why he wanted to work there. Other teachers do too, he says. “Here we can make a difference.”
Eric van der Burg, the deputy mayor for healthcare and sport who launched the programme, was brought up for eight years in the Bijlmer and says he would rather live in those neighbourhoods. “I don’t want to live in an area where everyone is wealthy and they all wear the same clothes and have the same dogs and hairdresser,” he said.
Van der Burg, however, is the nearest Amsterdam has to a rightwinger, belonging to the conservative-liberal People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD). The rest of the city’s politicians are to the left of him, so there are no accusations of nanny-statism, even though the programme is noticeably interventionist.
Another important part of the programme is sleep. “It is very important to get enough sleep. Nobody knows that,” says van der Burg.
Programme manager Karen den Hertog says that if you don’t sleep, your hormones are messed up. “You will be extra hungry. It is your hormones talking to you,” she said. They work to organise discussions with parents on children’s sleep patterns through community leaders.
Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the centre for food policy at City University, who has studied the Amsterdam model, is impressed. “They weren’t just saying let’s have a soda tax – they were thinking about how people connect with their environment,” she said.
“They went to parents and understood their attitudes and engaged in educational programmes to change them,” Hawkes said. “We have to understand why people are making their decisions and adapt accordingly,” she said.
Some of the policies Amsterdam is using to crack obesity
- A ban on bringing juice to focus schools and investment in more water fountains around the city
- Cooking classes to teach healthy varieties of ethnic dishes: pizzas with a broccoli base, kebabs with lean chicken instead of pork, honey and dates substituted for sugar
- City refusal to sponsor any event joint-funded by a fast food company
- Parents encouraged to put small children on bikes without pedals instead of wheeling them in buggies
- Focus on the first 1,000 days of a child’s life, including counselling for pregnant women and mothers
- Families encouraged to eat dinner together
- Sports centre membership and activities subsidised for low-income families
Source: The Guardian