Children's health and food

More action needed on the childhood obesity inequality gap

27 February 2018
3 min read
Rosa Vaquero
Rosa Vaquero
Head of Communications

Our new report argues that framing obesity as an issue of individual willpower overlooks the overwhelming evidence from behavioural science on how environments – both social and physical – influence people’s decision-making.

Bite Size: Breaking down the challenge of inner-city childhood obesitywas developed in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team. It takes a detailed look at how the ‘obesogenic’ inner-city environment promotes unhealthy options.

Experts, including Shirley Cramer from the Royal Society for Public Health and chef and campaigner Jamie Oliver, have contributed to the report.

Childhood obesity is the health epidemic of our time. The report shows that obesity is not caused by parents and kids lacking in willpower. It’s actually our high streets, schools and shared public environments that are having a truly negative impact on kids' health. Time is not on our side and this young generation needs to be healthy and happy in order to build the foundation of a strong and stable nation.

Jamie Oliver
Jamie Oliver Chef and long-time campaigner

Key findings

The report highlights that:

  • Childhood obesity is a problem of inequality. There is a clear and persistent relationship between childhood obesity and deprivation. The ‘inequality gap’ – the difference in obesity rates between the least and most deprived areas in the UK – ­­has increased by over 50% in the past decade. To reduce overall rates, it is vital to break the link between childhood obesity and deprivation
  • Poor decisions are exacerbated by scarcity. Families in disadvantaged areas have less of a cognitive defence against obesogenic environments. Their decision-making is affected by having not as much time and money and a need to focus on immediate issues. The report calls for a more realistic and sympathetic view of people’s eating behaviour. Environments need to make the healthy choice the norm
  • Solutions don’t have to be complicated, but they do take time.Bite Size’ calls for more initiatives that create coordinated small steps. These include making singular, specific changes such as reducing unhealthy snacking or increasing incidental physical activity
  • We have a collective responsibility to take action. The environments children live in are influenced by businesses, government and communities. The report highlights the role for everyone to play in helping children stay a healthy weight. It also calls for political leadership to bring decision-makers together under one mandate

Despite increasing rates of childhood obesity across the developed world, progress is possible if efforts are focused on breaking the link between deprivation and obesity, particularly in inner-cities.

In the UK, one in 10 children start school obese. That’s enough to fill London’s Olympic Stadium four times over, and entirely unacceptable. To tackle childhood obesity, we need to be clear on three things. First, that its effects are disproportionately centred on poorer families. Second, that it is as much a problem of environments as it is of willpower. And finally, although the issue is complex, the solutions do not have to be.

Keiron Boyle
Kieron Boyle Chief Executive

The report reflects experiences from projects on the ground as well as families. It features contributions from the Greater London Authority, Public Health England, Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, Alexandra Rose Charity, the Amsterdam Programme, and other experts in nutrition and public health.


Childhood obesity in London

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has also added his voice to the launch of the report.

The findings clearly show that we need to address the link between inequality and poor health. I want all young Londoners to be able to lead happy, healthy lives. That's why I’m setting up a new Child Obesity Taskforce, with the support of partners including Impact on Urban Health. I am looking for the very best individuals from across the city to lead the way, with a proven track record of bringing together those who can help tackle this problem. We need to improve the health and life chances of our young people – regardless of their economic background, their ethnicity or where in the capital they live.

Sadiq Khan
Sadiq Khan Mayor of London
Panellists for Bite Size report launch including Jamie Oliver

Read our full 'Bite Size' report

Breaking down the challenge of inner-city childhood obesity

Read the report