How can the food and drinks industry help to combat childhood obesity?


How can the food and drinks industry help to combat childhood obesity?

Child eating out

There’s no denying that the UK is in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. The latest figures from Public Health England revealed that nearly 60% more children in their last year of primary school are classified as “severely obese” compared to those in their first year, BBC News reported.

Meanwhile, figures obtained by the Local Government Association suggest that over 22,000 children will have left primary school dangerously obese this year. According to Ofsted’s latest childhood obesity report, up to 60% of obese school children become obese adults.

Chairman of the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board, Councillor Izzi Seccombe, highlighted the importance of the issue to the Daily Telegraph: “Unless we tackle this obesity crisis, today’s obese children will become tomorrow’s obese adults whose years of healthy life will be shortened by a whole host of health problems, including diabetes, cancer and heart disease.”

Schools may be out for summer but that doesn’t mean we should sit back and put our feet up. It’s no secret that a healthy diet and regular exercise hold the key to a healthy lifestyle, and instilling this at an early age can help reduce the risk of obesity in later life. With the stakes so high, we should all be doing something to help the health of the future generations. This of course includes parents and schools but are the food and drinks industry doing enough to combat childhood obesity?

Of our panel of over 400 parents, 71% said no. Interestingly, combatting childhood obesity is most important to under 35-year olds, with 85% being concerned. Millennials are certainly more health conscious with the rise of plant-based diets and vegans whom have increased by 360% since 2016, so it’s only natural they want their children to eat the same way that they do.

64% of guests said there are simply are not enough healthy meals available when eating out, and not forgetting drinks, 48% said it’s very important their child has a healthy drink with their meal. The trouble is, drinks are an easy win for operators. A guest, adult or child, is most likely going to order a drink with their meal, and if there isn’t a low/no sugar soft drink option available, guests are left to choose from a sugar laden drink, or water – the majority of children would choose the former.

Schools are doing their bit, but as the Ofsted report notes, there are “too many factors beyond the school gate” that are also having an impact on lifestyle choices. This can include promotions from restaurants in which children are bombarded with at the bus stop or on their local high street. 82% of parents say that unhealthy children’s meals are much better promoted than healthy ones.

You’ll no doubt remember from your own childhood how much of a minefield mealtimes could be. Many parents go into battle every night to get their kids to eat their greens at home, but with nearly half (48%) of guests taking their child out for a meal once or twice a month, limited healthy options make it even more difficult for parents when enjoying a meal out.

With families dining out more often, restaurants have a key role to play in curbing childhood obesity. When faced with the option of a salad or a burger, most kids would choose the latter. But what if restaurants made sure their menus were healthier and more appealing, providing kids with more healthy options and fewer unhealthy ones? 73% of guests have ordered their child a meal from the adult menu, shouldn’t children have the same variety that adults do?

An issue for operators and some parents is cost, and 60% of parents find that healthier meals cost more than unhealthy options. Although, 54% actually said that cost doesn’t have a huge influence when selecting a meal for their children - could this indicate that this may be because health is most important to them? If cost is not a major factor, operators could offer more healthy meals, keeping parents happy and children healthy, whilst getting more cash in their till. One parent said “Children's meals are usually awful in restaurants. Almost all restaurants offer the same tired dishes of pasta with tomato sauce, or a burger/ chicken nuggets and chips. I nearly always order from the adult menu for my children because of this”.

The Obesity Society’s study found that the introduction of healthy children’s menu items was linked to healthier ordering patterns. Healthy main course orders went up from 3% to 46%, and orders of at least one healthy side dish went up from 25% to 70% - meanwhile, chip orders decreased from 57% to 22%. From our panel, 59% of parents said that nutrition was important or very important to them compared to cost and new and exciting dishes. Nutritional information on children’s menus would influence 64% of parents as to what they order their child.

HGEM’s Founding Director, Sally Whelan commented:

‘’The food and drinks industry, out of home eating and delivery market means there has never been more opportunity to eat anything, anywhere, anytime, whether it be healthy or not. The temptation for children and adults to eat snacks throughout the day rather than the traditional 3 meals a day is real and undoubtably this habit is a major contributor to obesity.

Assuming the majority of parents prefer to provide their children with healthy and nutritious meals, when they do choose to eat out, having the opportunity to select from a nutritionally balanced menu is really important to them.”

The issue of childhood obesity can only be tackled if we all work together, and that can start with something as simple as healthier children’s menus.

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