UK targets calories in next phase of childhood obesity plan

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

PHE facts on childhood obesity via @PHE_uk
PHE facts on childhood obesity via @PHE_uk

Related tags Childhood obesity Nutrition

The UK has set its sights on foods with a high calorie count as it updates the country’s childhood obesity plan, which previously focused on sugar reduction.

Public Health England, which launched the plan to tackle childhood obesity a year ago, will now consider evidence on children’s calorie consumption. The government body said it will set the “ambition for the calorie reduction programme”​ to “remove excess calories”​ from the foods children consume the most.

PHE said ready meals, pizzas, burgers, savoury snacks and sandwiches are the products most likely to be included in the programme.

The public health body estimated adults in the UK consume 200-300 calories beyond their requirements each day, with children “following suit”​.

The move builds on PHE’s sugar reduction programme targeting a 20% reduction in sugar in key foods by 2020.

The agency said sugar reduction is a “vital first step”​ to tackling obesity in the UK, where one-in-three children are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school and diagnosis of type 2 diabetes is on the rise in children. However, PHE CEO Duncan Selbie noted overconsumption of calories will continue to have a detrimental effect on children’s health if this issue is not tackled as well. Selbie suggested the “root”​ cause of rising obesity levels is “an excess of calories – not just excess sugar consumption”.

“We will work with the food companies and retailers to tackle this as the next critical step in combating our childhood obesity problem,”​ Selbie stressed.

PHE said it will publish its findings in early 2018 when consultations with the food industry, trade bodies and health campaigners will establish timelines and targets for calorie reduction.

Broadening approach to obesity

By looking at the calorie content of food products, not just sugar, UK regulators are broadening their approach to obesity. The government is increasing its investment in research to develop a more detailed understanding of the underlying social and economic causes of childhood obesity. 

To this end, the Department of Health has funded a policy research unit – the £5m National Institute for Health Obesity Research Policy Unit at University College London – which will look to develop a "deeper understanding"​ of the causes of childhood obesity, including marketing to children and families, social inequalities, and the early years of childhood.

Professor Russell Viner, policy research unit director and professor of adolescent health at UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, said: “Obesity is one of the greatest health concerns of our time and we welcome this considerable and very timely investment from the government. We are delighted that the UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health will host the new Obesity Policy Research Unit (OPRU). Preventing obesity in early life is key to turning the tide on this modern epidemic.”

Industry applauds approach

The UK food sector has broadly welcomed the news, suggesting that a holistic approach to diet is the best way to combat the obesity epidemic.

A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation told FoodNavigator: “We are pleased that the Government has confirmed the broadening of its focus beyond just sugar - and towards calories - as it seeks to tackle obesity. FDF has long advocated this ‘whole diet’ approach. Singling out the role of individual ingredients and food groups does not help consumers to make good choices about their diet, lifestyle or general health.”

The spokesperson insisted that food and drink makers have a “proud track record”​ of reformulating products to reduce their salt, fat and sugar content.

“Food and drink companies continue to play their part to help people who are concerned about their weight by making available new, healthier options, by providing on-pack nutrition information and by supporting physical activity initiatives,”​ the spokesperson stressed.

“This work will continue as we rise to the challenge of PHE’s sugar reduction targets and engage with this new focus on calories.”

Health campaigners call far-reaching controls

Health campaigners at Action on Sugar, however, were critical that progress is not being made fast enough and controls are not far-reaching enough.

“We are pleased that PHE are launching a programme to tackle excess calorie consumption, which we hope will be ambitious. But more children are becoming obese and developing type 2 diabetes, and yet the food industry continues to pump out unhealthy, calorific food at cheap prices. Fast food chains, takeaways, manufacturers and supermarkets must not wait until next summer to start making their food healthier, they should start reducing calories today,”​ Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar said.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, also called for the levy placed on high-sugar drinks should be extended to include other high-sugar products, such as confectionery.

“We need a much more robust plan with enforcement of the sugar and calorie reduction targets, at the same time, the sugar sweetened soft drinks levy needs to be extended to confectionery, the second biggest contributor of energy intakes in children. We must also have watertight restrictions on marketing unhealthy foods to children, with uniform front of pack labelling.”

The British Medical Association echoed concerns around the marketing of food to children.

“The Department of Health has dropped the ball in terms of marketing junk food to young people. The government hasn’t strengthened existing controls on how unhealthy food and drinks are marketed to children. We know junk food adverts are very influential on children’s eating habits yet manufacturers get a free pass to appeal specifically to children, even in schools,”​ BMA board of science chair, Professor Dame Parveen Kumar, lamented.

“Unless we see considerable progress in tackling childhood obesity, the government must introduce stronger legislation to replace voluntary targets for unhealthy food manufacturers.”

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