Dangerously poor nutrition in UK is an increasing concern in children

17 April 2016  |  Editor

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Dangerously poor nutrition in UK is an increasing concern in children

Malnutrition-related illnesses ranging from rickets to obesity are on the rise in our nation’s children, and the Faculty of Public Health believe poverty is a major factor. The public health professionals’ body is calling for a national food policy, including a living wage to help parents afford to feed their children, and a “sugar tax” to guide them towards better food choices.

Dr. John Middleton from the FPH explains that obesity remains the biggest problem of food poverty as families are forced into choosing cheap, processed high fat foods just to survive. "It's getting worse because people can't afford good quality food," he said. "Malnutrition, rickets and other manifestations of extreme poor diet are becoming apparent. GPs are reporting rickets anecdotally in Manchester, the East End of London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It is a condition we believed should have died out.”

Middleton points to a “toxic combination” of rising food prices (up 12%), lower wages and higher fuel bills, which make takeaways a cheaper option than food you have to heat yourself.  Takeaways and fast foods generally have higher levels of sugar and fats and tend to be lower in nutrient value than home made meals. Some may also be skipping meals in favour of cheaper high calorie snacks such as crisps or chocolate.

As a result, schools are seeing a rise both in obesity at one end of the scale, and underweight children at the other.

Carmel McConnell is the founder of the Magic Breakfast charity, which provides a free breakfast to 8,500 British schoolchildren in need each morning. She reports that those children’s teachers expected to see a dramatic decline in the health of their pupils after the holiday period: "Teachers tell us they know even with free school meals it will take two to three weeks to get their kids back up to the weight they were at the end of the last school term because their families cannot afford the food during the holidays."

At the same time, nearly a third of children up to the age of 15 are now classed as overweight or obese. Again, this may be due to poor food choices forced on families living in poverty. In a recent open letter to England’s chief medical officer, 12 organisations including the Royal College of General Practitioners have called for an action group to be set up urgently to address the issue. The letter describes how “an entire generation is being destroyed by a diet of junk food and sugary food.”

Dr. Helen Stokes-Lampard from the Royal College fears that children who continue to put on weight will be at a much higher risk of cancers, strokes and serious heart disease as they get older. "But even more worrying is some of these children, children as young as seven, are developing diabetes- and the sort of diabetes associated with increased weight in middle age."

The UK has 3.8 million children living in extreme poverty, and many more living in less severe poverty. Most of these families rely on junk food as a cheap option, and health professionals are clearly alarmed at the impact. The rise of rickets may also be due to a number of additional factors that keep children from spending enough time outdoors in the sunshine to make vitamin D. Health professionals are now realising we need a multi-pronged approach, including education and financial support, to help keep our children in good health.