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Solve childhood obesity with nudging, not nannying

10 January 2013

Whilst I have been a vocal supporter in Parliament of the need to tackle childhood obesity, I am by no means a shining example.  My childhood was fuelled by sugar and E numbers that had me running around convinced that one day I would be a professional cricketer, or the next Gary Lineker, inspired by whatever sport happened to be on the telly.  The year was 1986 and politicians hadn’t given a second thought to Frosties.

Listening to Andy Burnham this weekend (over my bowl of Frosties), it occurred to me that, whilst I ate additives that would probably strip paint and enough sugar to power a small town, I was never overweight.

Politicians are missing the point on childhood obesity.  The problem cannot be attributed to diet alone.  When I was young, housing estates were not the sprawling concrete jungles that they often are now, but afforded their residents access to green open space.  Such open space is vital for young families, especially as gardens get smaller.  It would be easy to tweak our planning framework to ensure access to safe, accessible open space so that children can have the kind of active outdoor lifestyle that my generation took for granted.

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As a former Councillor, I was Lead Member for Leisure on Swindon Borough Council.  I was always under pressure to invest in leisure centres – and we did – but the reality is that most children visit these once or twice a year.  We have to look at the facilities that are closer to home.  Swindon is full of primary and secondary schools with halls and excellent sports facilities, yet after school they are locked away behind fences and hire charges.  These need to be opened to local groups and residents, so kids can make best use of the facilities on their doorsteps.  In concrete jungles, this is more important than ever and I have a radical suggestion for how this could be paid for.

Local authorities should merge their youth service with their leisure services.  We should take the money from the empty old-fashioned youth clubs and give it to the leisure service to reach out into local school facilities.  It would pay for things that young people actually want to do, be it football sessions or street dance lessons.  You would then have the trained youth workers parked up to provide the special support if needed.  This is not a pie-in-the-sky idea.  The Friday night ice-skating disco targeted at Swindon teenagers regularly attracts 600 young people.

In short, politicians need to realise that childhood obesity is not a problem that can be solved by nanny state, but by ‘nudge’ state.  Yes we need to educate about healthy eating, but we also need to do simple, tangible things to make an active lifestyle easily accessible to all our children.  Gary Lineker is out, Bradley Wiggins is in, but the enthusiasm remains.  The battle against childhood obesity will not be won over the breakfast table, but in the parks and facilities at the end of the street.

Justin Tomlinson is the Conservative MP for Swindon North.

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  • Lesley Jefferson

    Brilliant idea for getting kids moving, Justin. We need a wide range of common sense ideas to tackle childhood obesity – I see a few in the comments below.

    But there’s one area where I think we’re going to need more than a nudge. Obesity rates have gone stratospheric in one generation. The blame is falling at the door of food manufacturers who have found a way to add HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) to almost everything. Out of 600,000 US food items, 80% now have added sugar. It’s obvious in the Frosties, less so in savoury foods!

    Food manufacturers are a powerful lobby group – not unlike the tobacco lobby was in it’s time. I reckon it’ll take a hammer rather than a nudge to knock them into shape.

    In the meantime, the rest of us can play our part. My contribution is the online weight loss solution – it focuses on positive habit change rather than dietary restriction (which we now know isn’t a long term solution.)

    Onwards and upwards!!

  • CharlieleChump

    Eat less, exercise more. Problem solved.

    • A J Brenchley

      The trouble is, exercise takes effort and eating doesn’t.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    I’ve seen childhood obesity mapped by area, somewhere on the NHS site, I think. The fat kids are where the towns are. There are none out here in the sticks (I’m assuming I can recognise a fat kid when I see one). What’s different about ‘when we were kids’? Well, all the things mentioned here, and two more. First, today’s kids have money. We never did. Second, fast food. There are many more outlets for tempting fattening food than there were in the golden age of the idealised memory. Kids having money and fast food joints being an ever-present oppportunity to eat (and meet friends, and eat) is what makes those townies fat. There are race, class and social contributions to obesity too. There is more to understanding the problem than to look to this through a lens of our own prejudices. How about, just this once, trying to understand the problem BEFORE putting in place some daft programme with its own set of unintended consequences?

    • A J Brenchley

      ‘First, today’s kids have money. We never did’.


  • Magnolia

    I do agree that it is essential to get kids moving more and the ideas here are good but it’s a very male take on the issue. You can’t just ignore the way that we eat now and what goes on in the home with regard to food.
    There are plenty of overweight fit people.
    I still think that downright ignorance over simple cheap food preparation is a big problem and i suggested throwing open the school kitchens to local residents and local voluntary groups in an earlier post comment.
    Perhaps we need school kitchens and sports halls/fields open in the evenings and at the weekend?
    I’m wondering if the problem of fruit and veg peelings put poorer families off food prep?
    Compost is a problem! My solution is to collect it all (except potato peelings) in a small bowl and empty and clean daily or more often in to the plastic compost bin (supplied very cheaply from the council) which is very near to the door. Compost will be made with no other effort.
    Finally I would like the politicians of today to realise that our children have lost their freedom to go out alone. I hope those green spaces would get used but i’m not sure that the parents would trust their youngsters to go out and exercise unsupervised.
    For the record I walked to school under the supervision of a ‘big boy’ from 4years of age and by the age of 12years i was off down town by bus with friends and alone.
    I played out in the road/street/local reccy from primary school age without family supervision. I was free growing up in the 60s and 70s.
    I pity todays children with all my heart.

    • A J Brenchley

      ‘There are plenty of overweight fit people’.

      Yes, that’s true, too. Of course, true fitness precludes flabbiness, but fat (apart from visceral fat, around organs) lies over muscle, and there is no reason at all why you cannot have both. I know lots of people that do. And they do cardio exercise, but are always topping up with the kinds of things that I also really like to eat/drink!

      • Magnolia

        It’s because of the very serious potato diseases such as blight which can be spread via home made compost and also because potato peelings can turn in to awkward little spuds in the wrong place. That was what I was taught.
        My compost naturally developed the little red banded compost worms and I don’t think they cope well with spuds.
        It might sound silly to worry about the peelings but they are bulky, messy and stinky if you don’t know what to do with them.
        People who have no gardens might still collect their peelings for an allotment. Could we have peeling bins as well as litter bins?
        Sadly people would probably put all sorts in them.

        • A J Brenchley


          Why is that bacterial/fungal infections always seem catastrophic/Black-Deathish in Britain? We don’t seem to have these blights/plagues/mad-cow rabies phobias in N. America. Germs exist: we fight ’em: we persist. No big deal.

          P. S. If you wanted to rhyme and chime you could say ‘peely bins as well as wheely bins’. But perhaps you don’t.

  • nyoung02

    I’ll pick up on something here that isn’t the main point of the article, but is mentioned briefly – that of the trend toward smaller gardens, concrete jungles and lack of outdoor space. There are some really good examples of this in Justin’s own constituency (I live not too far away from Justin!).

    The trouble is in most developments parks are near houses, there is little room to set up goals with jumpers, and if the kids kick the ball with any force, it’ll be in the garden of a neighbouring house before you know it.

    Surely the planning system could be tweaked to enforce a lower density of development? – minimum average plot sizes, percentages of developments that are enforced green space that can never be built on etc…?

    You could also consider how this green space is allocated. For example there is some green space near our house, but you couldn’t play ball games on it because it’s on a steep slope – I suspect it’s basically the bit of land that the developers owned but didn’t want to build on because it would be more expensive…

    There is also a lower tolerance towards children than I remember there being when I was one, and many children do not want to play outside for fear of being shouted at by an intolerant (and usually childless) neighbour, even when they are being good.

    • A J Brenchley

      1. The neighbours really are intolerant?
      2. They shout at children?
      3. They shout at children that are being ‘good’?
      4. People with, e.g., music and reading habits enjoy a racket outside their windows less now than they did a lifetime ago?

      I doubt it.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    You’re a tory MP. Well, fix the problems you were sent there to fix. Don’t make up new problems that are none of your business. This is mere displacement activity. Is the nothing wrong with Swindon that you can find to help with? That damn roundabout, for a start.

    Oh, and prove this is not a drive-by by coming back to answer your crtitics.

    • nyoung02

      I assume you’re talking about the Magic Roundabout? Nothing wrong with that.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Which accounts for its wild success being widely copied elsewhere?

        • nyoung02

          It’s not a design that would be applicable everywhere. However it’s been copied in at least 3 other locations in the UK, and also abroad. It works and is simple for anyone that understands how roundabouts work.

          There’s plenty of things that are wrong with Swindon, but this isn’t one of them!

          • Rhoda Klapp

            Well, maybe it’s just me then. I just aim across it.

    • Noa

      A little harsh perhaps, Rhoda.

      There isn’t a lot of opportunity for Tory backbenchers to make much of an impression in the ‘can’t do’ culture of the broke-back coalition, when the leaders themselves are in zwischenzug on everything.

  • Archimedes

    Seeing as though we’re talking about obesity, one of the glaringly obvious household wisdoms that should spring to mind is that “one size does not fit all”. The notion that a government can centrally dictate what each and every child needs is ridiculous. Circumstances are different, and by stripping parents of responsibility and redistributing that responsibility amongst themselves and corporations, they will no doubt do permanent damage to the ability of parents to make decisions in the interest of their children.

    Are we really going to go through some future PMQ’s with an opposition arguing against a governments recommendation of 80g of sugar a day for every child, because the experts told them that 60g was the correct amount?

    The boundary proposals were incorrect, 600 MPs is still far too many, as we can see that even in a time of economic crisis, they have far too little to do, and in their desperation to make an impact come up with all sorts of Orwellian proposals. I imagine that somewhere in the region of 200 MPs ought to be plenty.

    Leave obesity to people like Jamie Oliver, who can educate and inspire, rather than dictate and dream up “obesity targets” and the like.

    • A J Brenchley

      ‘The notion that a government can centrally dictate what each and every child needs is ridiculous’.

      Statism in a nut-shell. And the problem with modern Britain, in one sentence. (Substitute ‘person’ for ‘child’ as you like.)

  • Noa

    “..after school they are locked away behind fences and hire charges.”

    It is a positive initiative worthy of support. At present the vested interests of a militant Head Masters Union and NUT conspire with those of local authorities to exclude community and indeed parental involvement in school facilities use.
    So changing the status quo will not just be a matter of ‘simply tweaking the planning system.’

    • telemachus

      The teachers and heads look after children’s interests without the burden of the profit motive at present
      It is not the best way to get good out of these folk and therefore the benefit for our children by consistently lambasting them

  • Tarka the Rotter

    How about we stop nannying and nudging altogether?


      Under what sort of ideology is it the role of the state to tell people what to do? Oh yes, socialism.

      Here’s an idea. Don’t think about nudging or nannying. Just relax and remove the obstacles to people doing the things they would like to be doing for their children’s health. You have made it almost impossible, for instance, for people to volunteer for children and youth work without appearing to be predatory paedophiles. We never used to require paid, leftist trained, youth workers to organise things. Local parents, churches and organisations would do so. Now you have made it almost impossible with perverse rules and regulations.

      Do please open up schools to local groups. Such activities don’t need to be run by the council. They never used to be. Remove the suffocating health and safety legislation that prevents anyone organising anything nowadays. That would be far more useful than encouraging the state to stick its nose even further where it is not needed or wanted.

      • startledcod

        Hear, hear. The obsession with paedophiles has meant that children aren’t sent out to play and, as has been pointed out here, the child protection industry has meant that it is nigh on impossible for a parent to organise an informal activity.

        As a child my mates and I could quite happily disappear for hours on end without even a mobile phone, guess what, we all made it through to adulthood unscathed and not obese; if only that had continued into adulthood.

      • Noa

        Ah, absolutely right to remind us of poor mad Brown’s post Soham CRB checks, created to solve a problem that never was, failing to solve the real one but creating a new vast and lucrative maladministriviality!

      • A J Brenchley

        I’ll see startledcod’s Hear, hear and raise him.

    • A J Brenchley

      Precisely. Some people still believe in this novelty called ‘freedom’.

  • Russell

    At last a sensible article regarding obesity, particularly in children. I too as a child used to eat significant quantities of sugary food such as Frosties etc. but also played football in the park, rode a bicycle quite a lot, and walked to and from primary school every day ( a distance of about 1 and a half miles each way).
    Now at the age of 64, have a slight belly, but certainly not in the obese category frequently shown on TV programmes showing overweight men and women in their 20’s.

  • Jebediah

    Kids are getting fatter because parents overfeed and under exercise them. Throw in the pathological fear of the outdoors that the tabloids have created, allied to the attraction of video games and the internet and you have fat kids.
    Feed them less, exercise them more, be a parent not a servant to a child.

    • telemachus

      Put efforts into moulding young minds and bodies in school and not profit

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