‘Childhood obesity’ has been a key public health priority area for those with an interest in challenging health inequalities among children and young people. This is because we can see, at a population level, that children living in the most deprived areas in England are twice as likely to measure as ‘obese’ than children in the most affluent groups (as measured by Body Mass Index (BMI)*). The gap between the most and least deprived is growing.
Our research used an approach to policy analysis developed by Professor Carol Bacchi called 'What’s the problem represented to be?', whereby the researcher infers what the policy makers are implying the ‘problem’ to be addressed is by looking at what is proposed. For example, if a policy calls for teacher training, the problem is represented to be: teachers lack training. We used this approach to investigate the way UK government ‘childhood obesity’ policy (which I will call ‘The Policy’ from this point) frames the ‘problem’ of ‘childhood obesity’ in relation to health inequalities.
What we did in our research
‘at its root obesity is caused by an energy imbalance: taking in more energy through food than we use through activity’ (Chapter 1, p.3).
|Food bank volunteer|
Thirdly, in The Policy, ‘stigma’ was given as a reason for the need for a childhood obesity policy, as children deemed ‘obese’ are likely to experience:
‘bullying, stigmatization and low self-esteem’ (Chapter 1, p6).
The proposals in The Policy, and the evidence bases drawn on (and those absent), reflect a broader ideological trend in government policy on health to move from addressing social/structural dynamics to focussing on individual responsibility. The Policy reflects ideological decisions which are difficult to challenge. The notable absence of the impact of austerity on health budgets and spending on child health inequalities in The Policy is evidence of this.
With Chapter 3 of The Policy potentially delayed due to COVID-19, I hope that government will revisit and review the aims of The Policy with a focus on structural dynamics like health inequality and poverty. At the very least, the government must work to remove barriers to healthy eating and physical activity, regardless of socioeconomic or weight status, for healthier outcomes for all young people.
Failing this, the government’s messaging about ‘obesity’ directly impacts the wider conversation and so I feel that it is the duty of those of us working in public health to challenge the ineffective proposals and damaging narratives that have been put forward in these policies, especially where we cannot change the policies themselves. I hope that our review can be used to challenge and strengthen future policy development, pushing for effective action against health inequalities and policy/intervention-generated inequalities in child health.