A new report, published by RSPH, the Youth Health Movement and Slimming World, is calling for a ban on fast food takeaway deliveries to schools and the introduction of new initiatives such as film-style classifications on unhealthy food and a loyalty card to reward healthy food choices, as part of a raft of ideas put forward by young people to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic.

Nearly one in five 10-11 year olds (19.1%) are obese, and the Government’s childhood obesity strategy has been promised this summer. However, this is the first time that young people have been asked for their views on the issue.

The move to ban deliveries to school is backed by three quarters of UK parents. In the report, young people point the finger at the temptation of fast food takeaways and unclear food labelling for the childhood obesity epidemic. Key findings from the research, which was developed from a roundtable workshop involving 19 young people aged 13-18 and a follow-up survey of more than 500 children, include:

  • Almost half of young people (49%) blame fast food takeaways as the companies or brands most at fault for childhood obesity
  • A quarter (25%) of young people have ordered a takeaway to their school; half of young people (50%) have ordered a takeaway via their smartphone
  • More than four in five (82%) think food manufacturers are misleading people when they provide fat, salt and sugar for single servings rather than for the entire product
  • More than two in five (42%) can walk from their school to somewhere selling unhealthy food in under two minutes

In the report, the young people identify a number of steps which could be taken by food manufacturers, retailers, Government and others to help tackle childhood obesity. Their recommendations include:

  • Fast food firms should be banned from delivering to schools (supported by 50%)
  • Nutrition information on food packaging should be provided specifically for young people, not just for adults (supported by 87%)
  • The number of teaspoons of sugar a soft drink contains should be displayed on the packaging (supported by 84%)
  • Packaging should display nutrition information for the whole product, not per serving (supported by 82%)
  • Supermarkets should give out ‘wonky’ fruit and veg to kids for free in their shops to limit pester power (supported by 80%)
  • A loyalty card that gives points for healthy food choices should be made available (supported by 78%)
  • Unhealthy food should be positioned away from the eye line of children to limit pester power (supported by 53%)
  • Food that is high in fat, salt or sugar could display film-style classifications such as PG, 12, 15 (supported by 33%)
  • Free Wi-Fi should be offered in healthy environments like parks, rather than in fast food restaurants (32% say they have gone to a fast food takeaway specifically because they offer free Wi-Fi)

Three quarters of parents (74%) surveyed by Populus also backed the suggestion that there should be restrictions on fast food shops serving children during school hours.

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive, RSPH, said: “Our childhood obesity rates are disappointing, and tackling this must be a priority for government – there can be no excuses for fudging action on what is our number one public health challenge. While we welcome the Government’s introduction of a sugar levy on soft drinks, it is absolutely critical that the forthcoming childhood obesity strategy builds on this positive step with a basket of hard-hitting measures, from greater controls on advertising and marketing of junk food to food reformulation. This report gives a uniquely young person’s perspective on what steps can and should be taken, and while there is no silver bullet, young people are very clear what they think the causes of obesity are, and what action they would like to see from government and industry in particular.”

Thomas Munnelly, aged 16, who contributed to the report, used to struggle with his weight before he joined Slimming World’s Family Affair healthy lifestyle programme for 11-15-year olds with his mum and with the permission of his GP. Since losing 3st his life has changed dramatically. He said: “As a child who has struggled with my weight I know how difficult being overweight at a young age can be. I hated how I looked in pictures and finding clothes that looked good was really hard. It’s definitely easier for young people to make unhealthy choices rather than healthy ones – at my school we have several unhealthy takeaways within a few minutes’ walk, a shop round the corner selling sweets, crisps and fizzy drinks and kids selling unhealthy food out of their school bags at break times. I was lucky enough to find a programme that taught me about healthy eating and getting more active. Now I help my mum plan the food shop and do a lot of the cooking too. My life has changed massively and I can now look forward to a healthy future, but not all kids are as lucky. We’re the next generation, so if something isn’t done now then in a few years’ time, today’s children will pass their unhealthy habits on to their young families. If we tackle it now though, we can change things before it comes to that.”

Paul Sacher, child obesity expert and Slimming World advisor, said: “Childhood obesity is directly linked to many serious medical and psychological problems in children and adults such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and mental health issues. It is so refreshing to hear the voices of children asking policy makers to support them by improving the obesogenic environment, if they are to have any chance of avoiding obesity and its consequences. Interestingly, many of the steps identified by the young people are steps that have been previously identified by experts but not acted on by the Government. Let's hope that many of these issues, important to young people, will be tackled in the upcoming childhood obesity strategy.”