By Heather Cameron
The issue of childhood obesity is in the spotlight again. Just weeks after the Channel 4 series Junk food kids: who’s to blame? highlighted shocking stories of children having gained several stones in weight and children as young as four with rotten teeth, a new study reveals that parents rarely spot obesity in their children.
The results of the survey, given to nearly 3,000 families, showed that nearly a third, 31%, of parents underestimated the weight of their child. It would therefore be fair to say, as highlighted by one of the researchers, that “if parents don’t recognise a child is obese then they’re very unlikely to do anything to help their child move to a more healthy weight. Then it’s a potential major public health crisis being stored up.”
Obesity experts have called for stricter rules on the advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks in a bid to help address this public health issue. And the public would seem to support this, according to a recent poll, which revealed that almost two-thirds of Britons surveyed want a ban on junk food TV ads until after the watershed.
But is the childhood obesity epidemic just a public health issue?
There has been a high degree of contention for some time over whether obesity should also be considered a child protection concern. Numerous news reports have questioned whether children should be taken into care if they are considered obese and potentially at risk of harm.
Just last year it was reported that up to 74 morbidly obese children in the UK were estimated to have been taken into care over the previous five years, according to figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws.
Prior to this, an article from Protecting Children Update that looked at physical abuse in children highlighted obesity as a form of abuse, suggesting that many professionals see obesity as a form of neglect.
Similarly, the researchers of a much cited paper published in The BMJ in 2010 – When does childhood obesity become a child protection issue? – argue that parents who refuse to help their overweight children to lose weight are neglectful. They say that whilst obesity alone is not a child protection issue:
“consistent failure to change lifestyle and engage with outside support indicates neglect… childhood obesity becomes a child protection concern when parents behave in a way that actively promotes treatment failure in a child who is at serious risk from obesity.”
The report raises questions over how obesity should be addressed in terms of child protection, however, noting that there is evidence that families of obese children were being unfairly accused of abuse where rare genetic conditions were involved. It also suggests that removing obese children from their parents may in fact make matters worse.
With a lack of published evidence and guidelines for professionals, the report therefore suggests the following framework for action:
- Childhood obesity alone is not a child protection issue
- Failure to reduce overweight alone is not a child protection concern
- Consistent failure to change lifestyle and engage with outside support indicates neglect, particularly in younger children
- Obesity may be part of wider concerns about neglect or emotional abuse
- Assessment should include systemic (family and environmental) factors
There is certainly no room for complacency, considering the knock-on effect the failure to recognise obesity could have on the nation’s health, not to mention health and social care services.
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