Research Roundup: Child Obesity Back in the Spotlight

1 Jun 2018

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Almost a month since our last post on the topic (link), child obesity is back on the agenda following the release of analysis of Public Health England (PHE) figures by the Local Government Association (LGA).[1] In their analysis they show that 22,646 or 4.1% of all children aged 10 and 11 in Year 6 are classed as severely obese; this is compared to 2.35% of 4 and 5 year olds in reception; the inference is that more children are getting more obese throughout their school years. For a more full explanation on how obesity is measured by PHE this BBC article provides a good introduction (link).[2]

One of the possible reasons is that the commodification of junk food and fast food is often specifically targeted at children, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found, stating that 50% of all TV advertisements seen by children aged between 4 and 15 being for products high in fat, salt, or sugar, with 70% of all such adverts being shown before 9pm.[3] Advertisers have overcome the outright ban on advertising on children’s TV stations by targeting ‘family’ shows.

The figures were released a day after the release of a Health and Social Care Select Committee Report (The Report) on Childhood Obesity, which, amongst other recommendations, specifically endorses a ‘9pm watershed on junk food advertising’, and calls for local authorities to be given more power in tackling the number of unhealthy food outlets and advertising billboards, as well as their proximity to schools.[4]

Of course, marketing is more commonly associated with producers, not consumers. A good example can be found on the cereal aisle; the friendly faces on children’s cereals are positioned so as to make ‘eye contact’ with the child, developing a sense of brand loyalty. The heights of the cereal boxes for children are placed at eye level and within reach; on the lowest shelves and at the height of the trolley seat.

Strategic positioning of items in supermarkets in nothing new, and the Report picks up on this, calling for price promotions of less healthy items to not be placed in areas of highest traffic, i.e. at the ends of aisles and at checkouts. The major problem, as stated by Professor Russell Viner in the report states that “those from deprived communities were 40% more likely to recall junk-food advertising than those from less-deprived communities.”[5] The inference is that those from deprived communities are influenced by, and identify more, with such products. Certainly those in deprived areas are more obese, and the gap is widening.[6]

It is a point charged with class frictions. Some argue that making ‘junk’ food more expensive will penalise the poor, who rely on the convenience and cost-cutting that opportunities provided by such promotions; for example the single parent who has not the time or energy to cook every night.[7] If that’s the case then suggestions that star-shaped food is more attractive to children, and that ‘modifying healthy everyday foods in this manner … could help children make healthier food choices’ misses the point.[8]

Others argue that the relative costs of reasonably healthy staples, such as rice, potatoes, pulses etc… are not cost-prohibitive and are affordable to the poor, and neither are healthier versions of everyday food items, e.g. low-sugar and low-salt versions.[9] The argument runs that choice of foods is therefore a ‘cultural’ or ‘class’ based phenomenon. However, the bare fact is that local measures are being hindered by a £600m reduction in councils’ public health budgets by central government between 2015/16 and 2019/20.[10]

If so, and if obesity is clearly not being tackled in school; then the calls for joined-up working that the Report calls for should involve youth workers. We have previously written about youth centres providing spaces for physical recreation, but youth workers can also provide some foundational education about food items and basic cookery, and are also able to get messages across in more deprived areas better than most formal or statutory bodies via peer-education. If the issues are largely determined along class lines then the use of youth workers with less ‘social distance’ is more likely to achieve positive results than many other measures. The Government is shortly releasing its update to the Obesity Plan it delivered in 2015, we hope such considerations are given space.




[1] [accessed 31 May 2018]

[2] [accessed 31 May 2018]

[3] [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[4] House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee, Childhood Obesity: Time for Action, May 2018, p. 3. [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[5] Ibid. p .16.

[6] [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[7] [accessed 23 May 2018] and [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[8] [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[9] [accessed 01 Jun 2018]

[10] [accessed 01 June 2018]