Friday, 17 December 2021

The way the Government talks about ‘childhood obesity’ is flawed. Should we even be talking about it at all…?

Posted by Naomi Griffin, Fuse SPHR Post Doctoral Research Associate, Sport and Exercise Department, Durham University

‘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.

Logic may suggest that if certain children are more likely to be categorised as ‘obese’, we should focus on ‘childhood obesity’. However, when exploring wider evidence, it is clear that this approach misses out important pieces of the puzzle. 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

Firstly, we looked at the way ‘obesity’ is defined in the policy. The Policy’s definition of ‘obesity’ focuses on child weight status, rather than presence of health problems, where the determinants of change are calories consumed vs energy expended: 
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).
However, the causes of ‘obesity’ (as defined by BMI) are embedded in an extremely complex biological system that interact with cultural, structural and economic contextual factors, none of which exist in isolation. In truth, BMI is a rather crude measure of height versus weight. BMI data can tell us about population level trends in BMI, but it is not complex enough to tell us about individual health status. It is also not a particularly appropriate measure for children as it was designed for use in adults.

Food bank volunteer
Secondly, The Policy proposes ideas around ‘choice’ and ‘informed decisions’, implying the ‘problem’ is a lack of information or poor choices. For example:

I want to see parents empowered to make informed decisions about the food they are buying for their families when eating out.’ (Chapter 2, p.5).

However, it lacks consideration of the accessibility of a balanced diet due to: affordability of food, practical considerations on physical cooking equipment and energy costs of preparing and cooking food, skipping meals, needing to use food banks, or varied availability of healthy food options.

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). 
However, there was no targeted response to stigma itself. The attention paid to stigma is necessary. The physical and psychological harms caused by stigma, and the negative impact that stigma can have on the quality of healthcare has been evidenced. Not only is stigma and misinformation about ‘obesity’ likely to impact an individual’s health and wellbeing, it also causes barriers to appropriate and timely treatment of many health concerns, not just those that have been linked to weight status. By framing stigma as the result of ‘obesity’, rather than a problem to challenge head-on, The Policy supports individual behaviour change and responsibility, rather than addressing the wider determinants that are necessary to understand these social trends and the negative impacts of weight stigma.

Challenging inequality

So, is ‘childhood obesity’ really the policy ‘problem’ we should be addressing in order to challenge health inequalities? I don’t think so. We propose that inequality itself is the ‘problem’ we need to challenge. For example, the unequal distribution of wealth that leaves millions of children in poverty, increasing food insecurity, unequal access to healthy food and green spaces, and unequal opportunities for physical activity. Policy decisions that have drained public services and policy approaches that unfairly tip the scales of responsibility for addressing the effects structural inequalities onto individuals must be challenged.

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.

Reference: An open access research article detailing the project which informed this blog post is available via BMC Public Health.

For further information on the research project, please visit the NIHR School for Public Health Research website.

Friday, 10 December 2021

Once upon a time in research... the power of storytelling for scientific communication

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, Associate Professor, AskFuse Research Manager & NIHR Knowledge Mobilisation Research (KMR) Fellow, Teesside University

A Christmas story about gifting knowledge (featuring Evidence Man)

It was the week before Christmas. After a long day in the office at her university, Ana Lyst rushed out to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. She had been too busy writing grant applications and journal papers to even think about presents for family and friends. It was already dark, with a stiff, cold breeze and snow started falling around her.

As she approached the high street, Ana noticed a bookshop she hadn’t seen before. It looked rather grand, a bit like an ivory tower, but with more doors. Through large windows at the front, she could spot frantic people in white lab coats running between the shelves, carrying big loads of paper and folders. ‘Bingo!’, she thought: books make great Christmas presents and I can sort out all my gifts in this one shop. She merrily stepped inside and was greeted by a large, vaulted ceiling underneath which stood endless rows of books in all shapes and sizes, reaching all the way to the ceiling. On first impression, the books looked rather dull and colourless, many of them gathering dust, with long, incomprehensible titles edged on their spines in gold.

Undaunted by the ambush of knowledge and people, Ana walked over to the applied research section (which sported a large swirly sign, fusing five different colours) and spotted several books that looked like decent presents for friends. Taking them to the till, she was met by a stern looking clerk, named Pierre View, who inspected the books carefully and with an authoritative tone explained that many of the selected books were not yet ready to leave the bookshop, as they needed more work and review. Could she please come back in 17 years to collect them? The 14% of books that were ready to leave, were neatly packaged in shiny, glossy covers with pictures and key phrases all over them that Ana Lyst was sure would really impress her friends.

However, when she tried to leave, Ana noticed that there were many doors to exit the shop (the entrance was no longer visible) and when she tried the first door in front of her, it wouldn’t open. She went to the next five doors with the same result: all of them were firmly locked, or the ones that did open led to a dead-end. Ana started to panic and her earlier optimism
 quickly melt away, replaced with visions of being stuck in the bookshop over Christmas with not a mince pie in sight.

At that moment, a small backstage door hidden in a corner of the shop opened and a bold bespeckled man stepped out, fully dressed in a superhero outfit with bright blue tights and top (that looked a bit too tight), over which she wore red underpants featuring a large letter ‘E’. Ana Lyst didn’t know what to make of this man, but he looked friendly enough and was walking over to her to offer his services. As the man came closer, he produced a large set of antique brass keys from beneath his cape and began opening several doors. “Are you a bit lost?”, asked Evidence Man (for that is who he was) in an accent with a Dutch lilt. “Stuck between here and the outside world? Not to worry! I know the way out to some safe spaces with a friendly audience who would love to hear all about the books you just bought. They would even be interested in the ones that are not ready yet, and they might have a few books of their own to share with you. Shall we go?”

True to his word, when Ana stepped through the first door unlocked by Evidence Man, she emerged back in the now snow-covered high street, where a group of her friends were waiting and, even better, one of them was carrying a large plate of mince pies! Ana Lyst’s spirits lifted immediately, and she vowed to tell her friends all about the helpful Evidence Man in the bookshop. But when she turned around, the nice man had disappeared and through the windows of the bookshop could be seen flying to assist another confused customer.

The End.

The power of storytelling for scientific communication

I was inspired to write this Christmas tale (and blog) after attending a storytelling workshop at the Fuse end-of- year social event on 3 December, which was led by Duncan Yellowlees. Duncan is a Communications Trainer who works with researchers to improve their communications, confidence, and impact. Take a look at his online COMMunity website (Research Comms … but better) to find out more. 

In an engaging and entertaining way, he took us through the key elements of storytelling: from key principles (putting pictures in people’s heads; construct a narrative of causes and effects), to different types of stories (metaphorical, motivational or monster stories, stories as hooks, and point-of-view stories), their structures (problem, solution and results) and what to include in stories (the point, examples, people, heroes & villains, magical helpers, and tensions & conflicts). Did you spot any of these elements in my story? Scroll down to the bottom of this post for spoilers.

Overall, Duncan provided plenty of tips and tricks on how we can use storytelling as academic researchers to communicate our research findings to wider audiences. And this relates directly to the first point (and story) that he made during the workshop: researchers spend too much time throwing the ball (their research findings) but not nearly enough time on making sure there is someone there to catch it (knowledge users). Find your audience first and make them pay attention before you start talking about your research.

His second point was that all this might seem daunting: so many different techniques, plot lines and structures to think about, how can we ever get any good at this? But when comparing it to learning to drive a car, the same principles apply: keep practicing and it gradually (and sometimes quite quickly) becomes second nature. This is because storytelling is already embedded in everything we do in our daily lives: from telling our family and friends about our everyday experiences, to reading books or ‘binging’ on Netflix series.

Finally, Duncan suggested some simple techniques for storytelling in science communication: making stories relatable and relevant (e.g. stress before Christmas) by including named people and adding details (e.g. dark, snowy high streets and describing the interior of the bookshop), which start to paint a picture in people’s heads. Most importantly, start with a hook: a story to draw in your audience, so they want to hear more, or use a question or bold statement as bait (e.g. only 14 percent of research makes it into practice and policy after 17 years).

My story might not have been all you hoped for this Christmas, but the Fuse social event brought some useful gifts for the Fuse Communications toolkit and much needed festive cheer at the end of another challenging academic year. 

Merry Christmas everyone and happy storytelling!

Spoiler alert:
  • The point: knowledge mobilisation between academia and practice is facilitated by a knowledge exchange broker. Plus some points about the time it takes and difficulties faced by researchers when trying to get research into practice and policy.
  • Heroes: academics producing research and papers, while running between bookshelves.
  • Villain: Bookshop clerk (Reviewer 2).
  • Magic helper: Evidence Man (Knowledge Exchange Broker)
  • Tensions & conflicts: research dusting away on bookshelves or not being ready to leave the building, while access to knowledge users is restricted or confusing.
  • Type of story: metaphorical story, overlapping with stories as hooks (to introduce this blog and talk about the storytelling workshop).