The Big Question: Are we exaggerating the problem of obesity among Britain's children?

Why are we asking this now?

Children are getting fatter, like their parents. Some people think the problem is now so serious that radical action is needed. Tam Fry, a spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, has called for the fattest children – the morbidly obese – to be taken into care. His proposal was backed by a third of the experts who attended a meeting of the forum in London, although he lost the vote on the debate.

Should fat children be removed from their families?

Malnourishment is treated as a form of child abuse and action is taken to protect the child. So should we not do the same with over nourishment? Mr Fry said yesterday: "I am talking about children who are so dangerously overweight that they are at risk from other illnesses such as diabetes. If they don't slim down they will run serious medical risks.

"There should be a case for them being removed from their parents to somewhere such as a paediatric ward where doctors could keep tight control of their eating. I am not saying keep them in total isolation from their families – parents should have access to maintain their link with the child which is vital. But removal is exactly what we would do in a case of malnourishment. It is just that over-nourishment is a new problem. People have not got their heads round it yet."

Are children already in care because of obesity?

Yes, according to Mr Fry, who said that Portsmouth was the first large British city to recognise obesity as a child protection issue and was drawing up guidelines for dealing with it. Last year, social workers in Wallsend, North Tyneside, considered taking Connor McCreadie, a boy of eight who weighed 13 stone, into care to help him curb his appetite. The plan provoked an outcry and the social workers instead agreed a contract with his mother and grandmother to control what he ate. But in Tower Hamlets, Lincolnshire and Cumbria, children who were excessively overweight had been removed from their parents, Mr Fry reported.

Can this be true?

Not according to the Association of Directors of Children's Services. A spokeswoman said: "A child would never be taken into care on the sole basis of obesity. That would never be the determining factor. However, it could be one factor in a judgement about neglect." Asked if overnourishment should not trigger the same intervention as malnourishment, she added: "Malnourishment has an immediate impact on a child's health and wellbeing and their ability to take part in a normal life. With obesity the direct link is less clear. It is also about intention – the question is whether people who overfeed their children are intentionally neglectful." Obesity was an issue of national importance and social workers were debating whether a new approach to managing it was needed, she said.

Are there other measures that could be taken?

Yes, though it is not yet clear what these might be. In a report this week, the Local Government Association, representing more than 400 councils in England and Wales, warned that Britain was becoming the "obesity capital of the world". Furniture in school classes, gyms and canteens is being made wider to accommodate larger bottoms and council play equipment is being modified.

David Rogers, the association's public health spokesman, said: "Councils are increasingly having to take action where parents are putting children's health in real danger. As the obesity epidemic grows, these tricky cases will keep on cropping up."

It was right that authorities should step in if "parents consistently place their children at risk through bad diet and lack of exercise", he added.

Can children be made to slim?

Yes, but it is a question of using a carrot-and-stick approach. Many of those who object to the idea of removing children from their families because they are obese support some form of intervention to encourage them to lose weight. This could involve regular visits from health and social workers to monitor the child's eating patterns and to help the family with buying and preparing food, as well as offering help with parenting problems. Targets for weight-loss could be set and rewards offered.

In extreme cases, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended that obese children might be considered for surgery to reduce the size of their stomachs.

How bad is the problem?

The Government's chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, says that roughly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children are overweight or obese. Fat children tend to grow into fat adults, so it is important to nip the problem in the bud. If nothing is done, the cost to the NHS is expected to soar to £6.5bn by 2015. Ambulances are already having to be re-equipped with extra-wide stretchers, mortuaries are ordering bigger fridges and crematoria are having to enlarge their furnaces. Sir Liam says nothing has altered his view, first expressed five years ago, that obesity is one of the most serious health problems that Britain faces. But parents often do not recognise that their offspring are overweight. A recent survey showed that only 12 per cent of those with fat children knew their child was heavier than they ought to be. Fewer than four in 10 were aware that obesity can lead to heart disease and fewer than one in 10 knew of a link with cancer.

Is awareness of the problem improving?

No. The increased prevalence ofobesity among the population has changed what is perceived to be "normal" weight. This means that large numbers of people are underestimating how fat they really are. Recognising that you, or your children, are overweight is the first step to doing something about it.

What can parents do about it?

Many parents mistake overfeeding for love. As Miriam Stoppard, the doctor and television presenter, has observed, they give chocolates and chips as pacifiers instead of time and affection. Sensible eating is a better solution than surgery.

The example set by parents is crucial – if they walk, children will walk; if they eat fruit and veg, children are more likely to eat fruit and veg. Dr Stoppard's advice is to avoid using food as a reward – offer fruit, nuts and carrot sticks as snacks instead of crisps and sweets, and be honest and face up to the problem.

One way of doing that is to keep a diary of everything your children eat and the exercise they take. The results could be surprising.

What is the Government doing about it?

Since last September, parents are being told if their child is overweight when they are weighed and measured at school. Previously, parents had to ask for the results. But the word "obese" has been banned for fear of stigmatising the child. Instead, those on the heaviest side will be described as "very overweight", a form of words dismissed by Tam Fry as "prissy".

Do we need stronger measures to help children who are too fat?

Yes...

* Fat children tend to develop into fat adults – obesity must be nipped in the bud.

* Obesity raises the risk of serious medical problems, such as diabetes and heart disease, later in life.

* Efforts to change eating habits and encourage exercise have failed – and childhood obesity is still increasing.

No...

* Removing children from their families to control their eating will do more harm than good.

* Targeting overweight children with tough measures risks stigmatising them and making things worse.

* Children must be taught good habits to last a lifetime, not punished for failing to meet the norm.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

    Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

    Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat