We need to talk about fat kids. They are, in England fatter than ever according to official data released today.
My neighbouring London borough of Brent has, according to these figures, the highest number of severely obese children – 7.8 per cent – while over the bridge in fancy-pants Richmond, they have the lowest percentage of too-chubby cheeks at just 1.5 per cent.
You don’t have to be a statistics genius to know why there is such disparity between these two boroughs. More people on benefits, and those who struggle to make the rent, live in Brent and more people with labradoodles, Hunter wellies and annual passes to Kew Gardens live in Richmond.
I myself was thinner when I lived in Richmond. Its glorious park was a playground to my son and I. Come rain or shine we’d run around every single day, having adventures and trying not to get run over by grumpy cyclists on their razor-blade wheels.
Affluence wafts around Richmond like overpriced coffee in Shoreditch. The children are rosy-cheeked, chock-full of vitamins and good vocabulary, and if you wander over to Barnes Pond, you’ll be slap-bang in the middle of a Richard Curtis film, produced by Enid Blyton.
Of course the children are healthier over there. Their bikes are permanently in the front garden so they can go for a family cycle at the drop of a Barbour jacket. The kitchen cupboards are full of lovely things bought from the farmers’ market, and a “special treat” is a trip to the new sushi place which does “ah-mazing” juices to boot (rather than a McFlurry with a gloomy-looking cheeseburger).
We can screech “THE KIDS ARE GETTING FATTER!” all we like but without looking at the social reasons why, it will continue. No one is under any illusions about the nutritional value of chips. But crushed under financial strain? Hopelessness? Depression? And the kids need feeding? Well, a plate of chips is fast, cheap and easy.
You can huff and puff all you like around a park but weight doesn’t really come off until your food is sorted out. It takes organisation, time, effort and mental positivity to pull yourself from the sludge of high-fat, high-calorie food. A pattern of overeating is frequently linked with depression and hopelessness. Then there is not having the means, the time or experience to do things that might be a better way to spend your time than eating.
What exercise does that’s crucial is that it connects your mind to your body. Getting the old endorphins going is a mighty tool to help make food choices that nourish, rather than numb.
Sugar is addictive, comfort-eating is addictive and if you’re in a cycle where you are struggling to keep your head above water, you’re as likely to turn to those things as others are to booze and fags. This needs to be acknowledged before you can take a step closer to crispy kale salad and a family park run.
The data about the increase in obesity don’t “suggest” but actually spell out the direct correlation between poverty and obesity. Austerity cannot be dismissed as a contribution to the rise in obese children. Turning the screws on already struggling families further, work and pensions secretary Esther McVey concedes that under universal tax credits “some people will be worse off” and prattled on further in that way Tories do when they get slightly exasperated that others can’t face that when the going gets tough, you crush the poor into the ground.
Cuts to state schools mean it’s become even harder for children to explore wider activities. Make sport as important as maths and English in schools, I say, because it is. It really is. It makes you feel alive, connected and it helps take away the feeling of wanting to self-medicate with Dorritos.
I visited a private school this week. (My son is in year six and I wanted to see how the other half live.) Never mind Latin and guest speakers like AC-flipping-Grayling, the gym facilities were jaw-dropping. Just looking at them made me feel that I still had a prayer of becoming an Olympic basketball legend. Who wouldn’t in such an inviting place? And they had a huge indoor swimming pool, as big as the municipal pool I take my children to where we swim amid the Band-Aids and bogey.
Ensuring they do sport every day and educating children about nutrition seems more useful than the National Child Measurement Programme (there really is such a thing) and shaming families of overweight kids. I don’t know how they measure them but a friend’s five-year-old daughter was reported to be “very overweight” and really the child has no extra weight to lose. We have to hold her down if there’s a sudden gust of wind.
The government should stop taking money away from already struggling families. Sport should become a daily routine until it’s ingrained in state school culture, just as it is in private schools.Column, The Independent, Writing