The Guardian LONDON, England Children in England are at risk of diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems because ministers have shelved anti-obesity policies until 2025, according to a damning report commissioned by the government.
The independent report says that ultra-processed foods (UPF) and products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) have become “normalised” in children’s diets, with poorer parents powerless to curb them.
Ministers say they are tackling child obesity. But they have postponed measures including a 9pm junk food advertising watershed and bans on online ads and unhealthy buy-one-get-one-free deals until October 2025.
Independent research commissioned by the government’s own obesity research unit and seen by the Guardian shows the devastating effect inaction is having on children’s health.
City, University of London, which conducted the research, said UPF and fatty, sugary, salty foods were now standard in child diets, with low-income families lacking the resources to mitigate this or foster healthier habits.
As a result, children’s health is at risk, including long-term problems such as type 2 diabetes. “While the health impacts of excessive snacking on UPF and HFSS foods are well documented amongst adults, there is growing evidence of similar impacts on infant, child and adolescent health,” the report says.
Healthy food such as fruit and vegetables are now “out of reach” for many parents on low incomes, it says. Multi-buy deals and promotions on UPF “makes them appear better value for money”, and “policy interventions are urgently needed to increase [the] access and appeal of healthy foods”.
In contrast, researchers found families on higher incomes were “positioned to continually stock their homes” with fruit instead of unhealthy snacks.
Wealthier families “were also able to sidestep retail environments with unhealthy temptations”, instead choosing options such as vegetable boxes, organic shops or online deliveries, safeguarding their children from “detrimental dietary influences” and fostering healthier snacking habits.
The report’s authors called on ministers to urgently introduce the anti-obesity measures they have shelved until 2025 in order to reduce the appeal and ubiquity of UPF and HFSS, and improve access to healthy snacks such as fruit and vegetables.
These include expanding access to Healthy Start vouchers, guaranteeing a living wage that covers the cost of a healthy diet, fruit and vegetable education in schools and greater regulation of misleading front-of-pack health claims.
“These recommendations align with the 2020 UK’s national food strategy, yet await implementation by the government,” City, University of London said.
Dr Paul Coleman, one of the study’s authors and a former honorary senior research fellow at City, said: “Consumption of UPFs is normalised and integrated into our diets from an extremely early age, with many infants consuming ultra-processed baby pouches, purees and smoothies from as young as six months.
“This is extremely worrying because we know that dietary patterns established in childhood typically persist into adulthood, and UPFs have been linked not only to increased risk of being overweight or obese but also type 2 diabetes, cancer and other health outcomes in later in life.
“Our research shows that for low-income parents there is little option but to buy these unhealthy options, even when they know they are their bad for their child’s health. The low cost and long shelf life of unhealthy snacks make them the most logical option, despite parents wanting to make healthy purchases.”
Childhood obesity is a significant public health problem. In England, two in five children leave primary school overweight and are subsequently at a higher risk of chronic illnesses, mental health problems and a shorter lifespan.
Coleman added: “We have been extremely disappointed to see the government backtrack on many of their anti-obesity policies over recent years. Fundamental changes need to be made to the food environment, making unhealthy food options less appealing and healthier food options more appealing.
“Given our understanding of a causal relationship between exposure to food advertisements and obesity, this should start with restricting advertising and promotions of HFSS foods in supermarkets, as originally proposed by the government in 2020.”
The report says healthier snacks “are on average three times more expensive energy for energy (calorie for calorie) than less healthy snacks, which makes UPF and HFSS snacks the sensible economic option for families on low incomes”.
Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance, who was not involved with the research, said: “Parents are sick and tired of being scolded when unhealthy options are often the only ones available to them. It is upsetting to hear that parents on low incomes are unable to buy whole fruit for their children, even though they know it is healthy, as they consider it ‘financially risky’.
“We have laws in place that could immediately help our children to grow up healthily, but the government has needlessly delayed them coming into force until the end of 2025 – leaving more and more children to suffer the consequences of inaction. This new research shows how we need the government to urgently step in and regulate companies that harm the health of our children.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government is helping young people live healthy, active lives by funding the distribution of 420m pieces of fruit and vegetables to younger school children each year and delivering dramatic reductions in the amount of sugar in children’s foods like breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais, through our voluntary sugar reduction programme.
“We have introduced calorie labelling on menus in restaurants, cafes and takeaways, and we are restricting the placement of less healthy products in shops and online – for example near cashiers – to reduce the likelihood of unhealthy impulse purchases.”