FIGURES released yesterday by the NHS suggest about one in 10 reception age children in Wrexham and Flintshire are obese.
Public Health Wales’ Childhood Measurement Programme revealed 10.1 per cent of children aged four or five tested in Wrexham were obese, while 9.9 checked in Flintshire classified as such.
About a quarter of youngsters in that age bracket were considered overweight.
An average of 11.3 per cent of youngsters were registered as obese in Wales as a whole – slightly higher than the local figures – but this is not likely to reassure Wrexham and Flintshire residents who are concerned about the health of the next generation.
The issue is a complex one – obesity is linked with a whole host of social issues, including advertising, deprivation and the pulls of modern lifestyles. But attempts are being made to address the issue.
‘Junk food’ has been banned from Welsh and English school canteens and the ongoing NHS-funded Change 4 Life campaign, focusing on healthy eating and exercise, has a visible presence on TV and other media.
But one development that may take some by surprise is the participation of young people in weight-loss groups.
This is a fairly new phenomenon.
According to Tracy Cawthray, North Wales area manager for Slimming World, the group only opened up to youngsters aged 11 to 15 in 2006. Weight Watchers accepts people aged 10 and over.
Participation is fairly low, but demand is growing.
Diane Hendley-Jones, a Slimming World consultant from Wrexham, said: “I’ve been running my group for five years. If a youngster has a parent member they can attend for free, but they have to have a consenting letter from a GP. You’ve got to be quite careful. Parents don’t want to put their children under pressure.
“The focus is less about weight loss and more about healthy eating, like swapping out sugary cereals and encouraging them to get involved with an activity they like.”
Currently, Diane’s group does not include a younger member, but last year saw more join and she gets constant enquiries from people worried their children are overweight.
She said: “I think sugary drinks are a big part of the problem. It’s easy to consume a lot of sugar in one go.”
Janet Snowden, a Weight Watchers leader in Gresford and Wrexham, said it was a difficult issue to deal with effectively because of the possible ramifications of intervention.
She has worked with three young members in recent years.
She said: “The problem is it can be so extreme both ways. Parents want their children to be healthy but they don’t want to get it wrong in case they give their children a complex.
“The emphasis should be on health and not slimming. They certainly shouldn’t be counting points, and I don’t think they should weigh themselves every week.”
It is a difficult balance to strike.
The eating disorder charity beat has recorded cases of anorexia nervosa in children as young as six, which throws light on the dangerous flipside of having an unhealthy relationship with food.
Communication also poses a challenge.
Janet said: “Parents won’t want to put a ban on something because that makes it more tempting. It becomes a case of forbidden fruit. The process has to be more about encouraging good choices.”
For a young person to participate in a group, a ‘target weight’ has to be set by a GP and allowances have to be made for the fact youngsters were still growing.
Young members do not follow a ‘points’ system of weight loss and do not have to follow a diet. They also have their own set of leaflets and tailored information.
Janet added: “An adult member will set their own challenges and may aim for 2lb a week. A child might be told to aim for a quarter of that, or not to change their weight at all but just to maintain it as they grow. It should be gradual and carefully monitored.”
Of course, age restrictions placed on the groups put them out of reach of parents worried about the health of their toddlers and primary school-aged children.
Janet revealed she would feel “uncomfortable” advising on someone as young as four or five-years-old.
She said: “I think it’s because our lives have become much more sedentary, including children’s lives. Parents are scared to let them play out.
“In addition, it can seem easier and cheaper to use processed food, but then you have no control over the fat, salt and sugar intake then.”
Learning new recipes and talking to other home cooks could help boost people’s kitchen confidence, she said.
Ideally, children should not need dietary intervention, whether from a group or a doctor. But increasingly, many do.
Sharon Duerden, a Slimming World consultant for Bagillt, said child obesity was becoming “a crisis”, but she had not been approached by young potential members yet.
She said: “The problem is there’s a generation of people who are bringing up another generation who do not know how to cook. I’ve encountered young mums who don’t know how. You can’t expect them to cook healthy food for children if they don’t know how to cook at all.”
Sue Vaughan, a Slimming World consultant in Hightown and Rhostyllen, Wrexham, said children had “more access to gadgets and less time outside”.
She said: “Also, parents are all working full-time or working hard to keep a roof over their family’s head and sometimes you can lose your way. It can be for a multitude of reasons. Access to junk food is still growing. It’s modern life.
“Most definitely this is going to be a growing need. Personally, I’ve noticed more and more young people are showing signs of being overweight, especially travelling around North Wales.”
Although being overweight is becoming more common it still has a knock-on effect on self-esteem, especially when youngsters are subjected to peer pressure.
“Bullying is a problem. Kids get picked on,” said Sue. “When you’re young, that’s definitely a vital time. It took 44 years of yo-yo dieting for the penny to drop and realise it had to be a lifestyle change.
“I don’t want more people to go through the same.”
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