The UK’s public health epidemic is forcing a rethink on how low-income families can enjoy a better diet.
At a national level, the government’s new obesity strategy is set to be published, with some expecting it this week. But the scale of the task facing those who want to change British children’s eating habits was brought into sharp focus last week by figures from the Local Government Association. When they arrive in reception, nearly 15,000 British four- and five-year-olds are not just overweight but severely obese. By the time they finish primary school, the number of severely obese is well over 22,000, more than 4% of 11-year-olds.
If those figures sound disturbing, deeper analysis shows the true picture. Fat is a class issue. At age five, children in poor households are twice as likely to be obese as those in richer ones. By age 11, they are three times as likely to be obese, as MPs on the health select committee reported last week. In affluent Richmond upon Thames, in south-west London, 11% of 11-year-olds are obese, compared with 28% in deprived Barking and Dagenham, in the east of the capital.
This inequality gap has grown much bigger in the past decade. Obesity is a disease of poverty, much as cholera was in the 19th century. It does not exclusively affect the poor, and rates are going up across the board, but those who live in deprived areas have far less chance of escaping it – or the catalogue of diseases that come with it, from cancer to diabetes.
Researchers studying this “social gradient in overweight” across different countries see a pattern emerging. Obesity is a form of malnutrition, they argue, and the greater the structural inequality within a society, the more that people living under financial and social constraints lack the opportunities for an active, healthy life.
Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, says: “The simple matter is that obesity is usually the province of socio-economic grades D and E, who cannot afford fruit and vegetables even when they know about good diet, so they feed their families highly processed food, which is less nutritious.”