Childhood obesity in Jersey: ‘We need to be doing more’

Professor Peter Bradley, director of Public Health. Picture: ROB CURRIE. (36750734)

PUBLIC Health officials have admitted that we are not doing enough as an Island to keep our children healthy, after a report revealed that a quarter of children in their first year of school were overweight or obese.

Jersey’s latest Child Measurement Report, which regularly analyses the Body Mass Index of children in two different year groups, also found that the figure for overweight or obese children rose to include nearly a third of pupils in Year 6.

Professor Peter Bradley, director of Public Health, said that there was a “glimmer of hope” that some government interventions were working, as the number of children in Reception classed as “obese” was marginally lower (9%) than compared to the previous year (12%).

But he added: “We do need to be doing more than we’re doing now. We are doing a lot, but it is so important to us that we want to look right across the system and address the issues voiced by Islanders.”

These “issues”, raised in the recent Health and Wellbeing Conversation, were the “external pressures”, such as cost-of-living, which “make unhealthy foods readily available” and “make it difficult to provide a health diet for their family”.

The figures in the report present a “major concern” for Public Health, Professor Bradley said, adding that his department “really are looking at this as a major priority area”.

“These things are not quick, but we are starting to see a return to numbers that we saw before the pandemic,” he added.

The Island is currently without a Food and Nutrition Strategy – the previous one expired in 2022, while a new one is under development, in partnership with Cambridge University.

He said the “intensive review” of the strategy “has to include those external pressures on families and children that make unhealthy foods readily available”.

The review of the Island’s food system – a complex network of people, farmers, businesses, government, finance, energy, and cultures that shape Islanders’ diets – focuses on “what we can do on the Island that actually supports children and local food products, supports hospitality, what we can do uniquely in Jersey to really address this important problem”.

This includes the prices people are paying for their food on supermarket shelves.

Professor Bradley committed to releasing the new Food and Nutrition Strategy in 2024.

Use the NHS’s BMI healthy weight calculator here.

Is local food key?

A health professional said the solutions were to reduce the cost of healthy local produce by improving “food infrastructure in the Island”, to educate children about diet, and return to “a more traditional way of eating”.

Dr Jo Darwood, a GP who owns a lifestyle medicine business, said that the numbers painted “a very worrying picture, especially when we consider it alongside the rising numbers of adults with health conditions like diabetes”.

She said she hoped that the upcoming strategy would focus on education and on the “cost-of-living and the cost of food in Jersey”, with the key to “make less-processed foods more readily available”.

She added: “We know that what we’ve been doing for the last 40 years isn’t working, so now is the time to be innovative.”

Dr Darwood continued: “There are a lot of factors conspiring against families wanting to eat healthily, particularly cost-of-living. As a parent, you’re working several jobs with long hours, and it’s very difficult to put the necessary effort into making healthy nutritious food for your children.

“We should aim to include more local products in our children’s diets and get back to that more traditional way of eating with good food made from whole ingredients.”

She said: “People are struggling with time, resources and money, and it can be hard to make healthier choices.

“There’s often a lot of blame put on individual families, but we are victims of our environment and the quality of foods readily available from companies is poor, and fast food is often the cheaper option.”

She added that other solutions are educating children about “what a healthy diet is and should look like” as well as “social prescribing” – where health professionals refer people to a range of local, non-clinical services to support their health and wellbeing, such as cooking clubs, educational classes, and physical activity.

What are obese children at risk of?

Professor Peter Bradley said: “Children being overweight or obese leaves them at greater risk of health problems later in life. Conditions known to be associated with higher weight are diabetes, heart problems and ultimately cancer.

“What children establish as a dietary pattern early in life does persist, and that’s why it’s so important. Even if their health isn’t immediately affected, we want them to become healthy adults later in life.”

“A right to good health”

One in four children in Reception (24%) was overweight or obese, while around three in ten children in Year 6 (32%) were overweight or obese.

The proportion of Reception children classified as overweight or obese increased to 27% between 2017/2019 and 2021/2023, having remained at around 20% over the previous 20 years.

Children’s and Education Minister Inna Gardiner said: “It is concerning that the Child Measurement Report shows high levels of obesity among primary school children. All children have a right to good health, and we can support this right in many ways.

“This includes work with schools and more generally on changing behaviours, as well as taking practical steps, and the provision of school meals is a key way we are doing this. By the end of this term, children in eight primary schools will have access to healthy, nutritious meals. This means that parents – who can often struggle to pack a healthy lunch – will have more options available to them.

“But this is also a long-term plan, about ensuring children have play spaces where they can stay active and enjoy exercise. This is especially true for children growing up in town, who are less likely to have access to a garden. That is why we are ensuring that any new St Helier school has plenty of versatile, appealing outdoors space.”

How do we compare to the UK?

The proportion of children in Reception categorised as overweight and obese was similar in Jersey (24%) as in England (22%); the proportion of children in Year 6 categorised as overweight and obese was lower in Jersey (32%) than that in England (38%).

How does it differ by parish?

The parish of residence of each child was categorised as “urban” (St Helier), “semi-urban” (St Brelade, St Clement, St Saviour), or “rural” (Grouville, St John, St Lawrence, St Martin, St Mary, St Ouen, St Peter, Trinity).

The proportion of children classified as overweight or obese in “urban” parishes in Reception (28%) was higher than the proportion in “rural” areas (21%) as seen in previous years.

In “urban” parishes in Year 6 the prevalence of children classified as overweight or obese was higher (38%) than the proportion in “rural” (24%) and “semi-urban” (28%) areas.

A similar proportion of children living in “urban” parishes in Reception were obese (9%) compared to those living in “rural” and “semi-urban” areas (7% and 8% respectively).

For Year 6 children living in “urban” parishes, a higher proportion were obese (17%) compared to those living in “rural” and “semi-urban” areas (11% and 13% respectively).

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