Comment: A formidable task to change behaviour

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As if the challenge of tackling adult obesity was not enough, now comes evidence of an alarming 
 increase in obesity in babies – and that the damage may start in the womb.

Across Lothian, the figures are telling. Children as young as two are being sent to NHS “fat camps” in a bid to tackle the crisis. And more than 700 have been referred to NHS Lothian’s paediatric weight management programme in the past three years while around one in seven Scottish children aged between two and 15 are classed as obese.

Health experts warn that more babies were being born fat to overweight mothers and are living increasingly sedentary, inactive lifestyles.

And according to Raj Bhopal, professor of public health at Edinburgh University, the problem begins in pregnancy. “Women who are overweight are giving birth to larger babies with more fat on them and then the cycle begins. In some families infants are already becoming sedentary, being left to sit in front of the TV. The consequences are very serious. If you are obese in childhood then the risk of being overweight as an adult is considerable.”

Talk of an “obesity crisis” has been around for years. But the evidence is mounting that we have an obesity time-bomb with the full extent of the damage to health and wellbeing not evident until the early teenage years. By this time the risk of lower life expectancy is all the greater.

Changing behaviour is a formidable task. Fattening food is pleasurable. It often comes in convenient form with little need for cooking skills or preparation. And few like being nagged about their eating and lifestyle habits. But behavioural change is possible – and once established can grow through example and peer pressure. Obese-free children can participate and succeed in sporting activities, and can build their self-confidence by achievement. And the desire of parents to do the best for their children is a powerful driver of such change.

This, backed up by measures such as greater information on the sugar content of foods and more responsible packing and display by food manufacturers and supermarkets, can work to achieve significant improvement over time.