Nutrition team

The most recent statistics on the prevalence of obesity in children in the UK show that about 22 per cent of boys and 28 per cent of girls aged 2-15 are overweight or obese. Conservative estimates indicate that at least one fifth of boys and one third of girls will be obese by 2020.

The evidence suggests that older children who are obese and the heaviest children at any age have an increased likelihood of being obese as adults. Other evidence suggests that overweight children now have a 50 per cent chance of being overweight adults, and children of overweight parents have twice the risk compared to those with healthy weight parents.

These statistics are extremely worrying given the tendency of obesity in childhood to track into adulthood and the numerous lifestyle diseases that are associated with being overweight or obese, for example, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

The pressure group, Sustain, has highlighted the abundance of advertising of sugary and fatty foods on children’s television as a possible factor promoting the growing problem of obesity in British children. As a result, they have staged a major conference on obesity, supported by more than 50 national medical and health public interest organisations, including the British Heart Foundation, Royal College of Physicians, UNISON and World Cancer Research Fund. The purpose of this conference is to call for legislation to protect children from the advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods.

At a time when rates of childhood obesity are rising to unprecedented levels, advertisers of 'junk' food are selectively targeting children, potentially damaging their immediate and future health. Sustain's ‘TV Dinners’ report has found that up to 99% of the adverts for food during children's commercial TV programming are for products that are high in fat and/or sugar and/or salt. Meanwhile, the prevalence of childhood obesity and childhood dental decay is growing alarmingly.

Confectionery and cakes comprised the largest categories (nearly 50%) of food advertised during children's TV. Children viewing Saturday morning TV will see more than twice as many adverts per hour for unhealthy foods as adults viewing after 9.00pm in the evening. Analysis of the nutritional content of food and drink advertised during children’s viewing times demonstrates that between 95% and 99% of the products are high in fat and/or sugar and/or salt.

Meanwhile, fruit and vegetables, the foods that children most need to increase their consumption of, were not advertised at all during the survey period, which corresponds to the fact that British children eat less than half the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with one in five children eating no fruit and vegetables at all.

This disproportionate exposure of children to adverts encouraging them to eat ‘junk’ food is clearly in opposition to the dietary recommendations issued by the health authorities and undermines efforts of parents and professionals to encourage healthier patterns of eating.

Sustain maintains that the cumulative effect of advertising which portrays unhealthy foods as attractive and desirable choices, is to reinforce children's consumption of these foods and undermine efforts to encourage healthier patterns of eating.

Sustain is re-launching its campaign calling for the introduction of legislation which protects children from the advertising, marketing and promotion of 'junk' foods.

These worrying findings are compounded by recent evidence from researchers in Bournemouth University who have shown that many children cannot identify different vegetables, and say it is evidence of a poor diet. Scientists from found that government attempts to promote fruit and vegetables in primary schools appear to have failed so far.