The appropriately named ‘Food matters’ Live conference took place last week with a range of policymakers, academics, industry representatives and think tanks presenting to a full conference hall and packed out fringe events. It was a welcome focus on the importance of food. Of particular interest for this site was the focus on pre-school nutrition, with six sessions over the conference offering insights into the benefits of early intervention in combatting childhood obesity and developing healthy lives.
Most notably we heard:
– Richard Sangster, Head of Obesity Policy at the Department of Health, outline how the UK is becoming obese earlier and staying obese for longer in life. He highlighted recent official figures showing 1 in 3 children aged 2 – 15 are either overweight or obese
– Eretia O’Kennedy, Head of Nutrition at Jamie Oliver Group, lamented the lack of cooking skills and highlighted how this led to more people being overweight through a reliance on ready meals. “Changing diets is not enough. We need to remember why home cooking is so important”. According to their own research, Eretia pointed out that an obese toddler is 4x more likely to be obese as an adult
– Kim Roberts, Chief Exec of HENRY, told the event 1 in 4 children are either overweight or obese by the time they enter primary school
There are, then, two important themes emerging that impact policymakers and industry alike. First, it is clear that obesity is starting before children first enter school and, as a result, the food and health landscape in the very early years, 0-3, is of critical importance. Second, and linked to this, health and cooking literacy is imperative if we are to combat the rise in childhood obesity. We know that increasing parents’ knowledge, skills and self-confidence in healthy eating goes a long way to helping them give their children a healthy start in life. Life skills such as cooking, budgeting and smarter shopping are key components of this.
And it’s not just parents who can affect the family’s lifestyle, children themselves have a role to play if they are empowered. As the Jamie Oliver Group said at conference, “if children learn about carrots [in early years settings and] at school, they’ll come home and pester their parents about carrots”. Its these settings, be they children’s centres, nurseries or schools, that can shape and influence healthy eating behaviours.
This utopia can be achieved, and is in some instances. It’s up to the media / policymakers / industry / academics / activists to continue to press the importance of this healthy environment and watch families (and the nation’s waistline) reap the reward.