Studies of the Children of Paul Berard

Let’s Do This! Is Not Helping British Children

The First Step Is a Few StepsWe don’t mean to pick on this lovely ad campaign by the NHS. Because there’s nothing wrong with promoting healthy lifestyles. But unfortunately, it isn’t going to do a thing to reverse the obesity trends in the UK. It reflects a mentality about confronting obesity that fails over and over. Just do better and make better choices. We tried it in the U.S., using Let’s Move! as the rallying cry for reversing trends in childhood obesity. Ten years later, those trends have not budged. And new data from the National Child Measurement Program in England tells us that this mindset is not helping with obesity trends for British children.

New statistics for British childhood obesity rates are out and they show that the trend is up yet again. Now 21 percent of children aged 10-11 years have obesity. These are data for the 2019-2020 school year. They represent an increase from the prior year number of 20 percent. They are higher than any rates yet reported for the U.S.

Resistance to a Systematic Approach

We’ve been here before. Obesity is a wickedly hard problem because multiple systems are working to promote obesity in susceptible individuals. It’s tempting to think that we can Just Do This – decide to eat less and move more – and the problem will evaporate.

Hence the Let’s Move! campaign that Michelle Obama launched in 2010. The result was some improvements in school nutrition. But no change in childhood obesity trends

Let’s Do This! is aimed more at adults in the UK, but it reflects similar thinking about obesity – individual action. The government is experimenting with other measures, too. Taxes on sugar in soft drinks have been in force since 2016. There’s talk of aggressive junk food advertising bans, too. But the underlying thinking is all about individual choice. Health Secretary Matt Hancock says:

“I am determined to help parents, children and families in the UK make healthier choices about what they eat. We know children spend more time online. Parents want to be reassured they are not being exposed to adverts promoting unhealthy foods, which can affect habits for life.”

Getting Real About Obesity

What is necessary is more objectivity and curiosity about obesity. People have not chosen to become fatter. Our environment is triggering more obesity in susceptible individuals – adults and children. It’s not just sugar. Junk food sounds like an easy target, but it’s more than that. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can contribute, as can our physical environment. The list is long. Sorting it out requires objective inquiry and testing of potential solutions.

As long as Britain is stuck on the idea that obesity is merely a behavioral problem, obesity rates will continue to grow. Obesity has its roots in our biology. Multiple systems are conspiring to trigger it. Britain needs a systematic approach to reverse it. People of all ages with obesity need access to effective obesity care, which they don’t really have in the NHS. Behavioral approaches alone will leave British adults and children with a legacy of poorer health.

Click here and here for more on the UK childhood obesity report. For more on systematic failures in addressing obesity for the UK, click here.

Studies of the Children of Paul Berard, sketch and study by Pierre-Auguste Renoir / WikiArt

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November 18, 2020

6 Responses to “Let’s Do This! Is Not Helping British Children”

  1. November 18, 2020 at 7:07 am, Rick Riess said:

    Hi Ted,

    Great work you do. Much appreciated.

    I totally agree that obesity is a very complicated issue. I am curious about your opinion related to the extent to which changes in our environment are driving the increasing prevalence of obesity. It seems other factors are sometimes presented (endocrine disrupting chemicals) that suggest to the reader that weight gain is caused by an unsupportive environment AND other factors, instead of weight gain being caused by the unsupportive environment from which other factors extend.

    Perhaps a poor analogy: the iceberg sunk the Titanic. Sure water filled certain chambers and other structural issues ensued, but no iceberg, no disaster. No changes to the environment, no obesity.

    My particular interest in this lies in the fact that when working with people to lose weight, I’ve found that when “other factors” are presented (many of which can come across as biological issues they have little control over) it can dilute their efforts to develop skills to overcome the unsupportive environment.

    What are your thoughts there?


    Rick Riess

    • November 18, 2020 at 11:45 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Rick, for an excellent question.

      There are two different questions that one might hear in your question. One is something like, “If we let people with obesity off the hook, won’t that rob them of motivation to overcome the unsupportive environment?” Unequivocally, I will tell you this is false. Blaming people for obesity is what leads people to conclude, after failing over and over again, that their efforts are futile. On the other hand, telling people that this is really hard (because your body is working against you) actually helps. It tells people that they can make a difference and they should go into it with realistic expectations.

      So the other form of this question might be: “Shouldn’t we tell patients that their efforts can make a difference, even though it’s not easy?” That’s a very different and reasonable way to go. Every smart obesity care professional I know takes this track. Not the first one — assigning blame to the patient.

  2. November 18, 2020 at 9:56 am, David Brown said:

    On the short list of environmental factors contributing to the global increase in obesity is this: “We now know that major changes have taken place in the food supply over the last 100 years, when food technology and modern agriculture led to enormous production of vegetable oils high in ω-6 fatty acids…”

    I find it peculiar that this aspect of the obesity problem is essentially off the table when it comes to discussing causes. Perhaps this is the reason: “Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in the American diet are mostly n-6 PUFAs, particularly linoleic acid (LA). Given the compelling evidence supporting the benefits of dietary n-6 PUFAs in coronary heart disease, LA is recommended as a healthy energy source for maintaining long-term health.”

    Of interest is the fact that high linoleic acid intake causes varicose veins. And people with varicose veins are at lower risk for heart attack and diabetes. However, these same people are at higher risk for congestive heart failure. (Google – linoleic acid varicose veins and varicose veins heart attack risk pubmed)

    • November 18, 2020 at 10:32 am, Ted said:

      Speculation about linoleic acid in the food supply is indeed interesting and appealing. But definitive answers are challenging to obtain, in part because so many people have strong feelings that get in the way of genuine curiosity. When you have convinced yourself that you already know the answer, why do difficult studies to prove or disprove your speculation?

  3. November 18, 2020 at 10:14 am, Allen Browne said:

    And perhaps we can learn from “across the pond?”

  4. November 18, 2020 at 2:56 pm, Mary-Jo said:

    Public health campaigns are good and can plant seeds of making better decisions, but in NO WAY are effective as treatment, even prevention strategies for obesity! Gun-ho ideal recommendations are a futile charade in an environment that bombards populations with exactly the opposite messages, and with other multi factors at play in disease etiology and course of obesity, especially in people with strong genetic predisposition. These campaigns, good-intentioned, often costly, too, also give HCPs and people with thin-privilege fodder to further blame people with obesity for not being strong enough, smart enough, self-respecting enough 😖, obedient enough ? 🤷‍♀️ to follow recommendations to lose weight, get thin, and be healthy. These campaigns are the weakest, poorest approach to helping populations decrease incidence, prevalence of obesity.