What is the prevalence of obesity in Northampton compared to the overall population? We’re heavier! In Northampton, 68.1% of adults are overweight or obese compared to 62% in England. But the good news is that our children are not as overweight. In Northampton, 20.8% of reception year children are overweight or obese compared to 22.6% of the population. And in year 6, the figures rise to 33.1% for Northampton compared to 34.3% for England.
Northampton may have fewer overweight or obese children, but that’s still a large number. A third of year six children and a fifth of reception year children are overweight or obese. When I was at junior school (is it still called that?), one child was overweight, and he stood out like a sore thumb. That’s one in thirty. Now the figure is one in three!
In this post, we discuss the prevalence of overweight and obesity in Northamptonshire and share some ideas on improving the situation.
A Wellbeing report for Northampton
How do we know those stats? Because there’s a report in the public domain called ‘Obesity and Health and Wellbeing in Northampton – a briefing and evidence paper.’
The report details statistics by ward of the prevalence of overweight and obesity in the local population. It makes for fascinating reading, especially if you live in Northamptonshire. It’s also a bit shocking. It shows just how unhealthy we are as a nation and as a county.
The heart of the problem
Across the UK, people are living longer. Of course, everyone would like to live a healthy and active life right to the end, but the reality is the opposite. People are living more years in ill health, which has several implications, including:
- Lower quality of life
- A burden on health services
- Ultimately, damage to the economy
So, it’s in everyone’s interests that the health of the nation is improved.
Overweight and obesity in Northamptonshire
A significant contributor to ill health is the prevalence of overweight and obesity. Obese people are at higher risk of developing cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They are also likely to be less mobile, less capable and suffer from joint problems. Most overweight and obese people are self-conscious and lacking in self-confidence and self-esteem. The incidence of depression is higher in those who are obese. They may be subjected to prejudices and intolerance.
Tackling overweight and obesity is a top priority for Northamptonshire. The Northamptonshire Health and Wellbeing strategy aims to create, support, and sustain environments that promote healthier lifestyles, including the provision of green spaces, increased levels of activity, and access to healthier food.
One of the drivers for the strategy is the following statement from the Northamptonshire Director of Public Health annual report
|“The unhealthy weight of our children and young people has been referred to as a generation time bomb that can have lifelong health implications. We must get to the root cause to tackle this complex, multi-factored problem by working with and educating communities, schools and families to take a lead role in preventing our children becoming overweight and addressing the issue early if it arises.”|
This is a good statement. I firmly believe that education on nutrition, exercise and calorie balance would make a difference and should be part of the core curriculum in schools.
Health stats for Northampton
The statistics in the report make interesting reading. Here are some of them:
- 1% of adults in Northampton are overweight or obese.
- 7% of reception children are overweight or obese. 36.4% of children in year 6 are overweight or obese.
- Billing has the highest incidence of childhood overweight or obesity at 27.6% and 42.1% for reception and year 6, respectively.
- Nine of the twenty hotspots in Northamptonshire are in Northampton.
- People in Northampton eat fewer portions of fruit and vegetables than the UK population, with only 47.2 % getting five a day.
- Northampton has the third-highest incidence of fast food outlets in the county.
- Northampton has the third-highest incidence of overweight or obesity in the county.
- The Castle district has the highest number of fast-food outlets, with an astonishing 59.
So you can see, Northampton is not a healthy town!
Why does the report focus on fast food outlets? Because there is a strong correlation between obesity and the use of fast food outlets. 27% of adults and 19% of children eat out-of-home meals at least once a week.
There is evidence that the correlation between obesity and the prevalence of fast food outlets is stronger in those with lower levels of education. This strengthens my feeling that nutrition and calorie education are essential tools for tackling obesity and overweight.
As well as promoting cycling and walking, the strategy aims to use the planning system to provide easier access to healthy food. Planning will discourage unhealthy fast food outlets and encourage more nutritious choices. I’d thoroughly welcome this. We might ourselves eat out more or use takeaways if there were more options. But there are next to no takeaway vendors that specialise in healthy meals.
So what can we do?
How can we improve the health of the people in Northampton and reduce the incidence of overweight or obesity? Here are a few ideas.
Measure and publicise
We should continue to measure ill-health, overweight and obesity, just as this report has done. It’s an excellent account of a local aspect of a national problem.
Perhaps it could be better publicised. Let’s draw attention to the statistics, the problems created for the nation and, especially, the individual.
The report summarises the health issues associated with obesity, but we’d like to see more on this. Mobility and joint problems, and the impact on mental health, for example, are not listed. If we can make more people aware of the health risks of obesity from an early age, it should incentivise people to adopt healthier lifestyles.
Implement a holistic strategy
The Northampton health and wellbeing strategy’s sentiment and aims are admirable, and we fully support them. The plan covers aspects of both activity and nutrition. In simple terms, that’s what weight management is all about: calories in versus calories out; nutrition and activity.
We applaud the intention to promote healthy food outlets and discourage unhealthy ones. We’d love to have the occasional healthy takeaway, but there is almost no choice.
But there must be more to it than that. Nearly 70% of adults are overweight and obese, but only 27% of adults have an out-of-home meal each week. People simply overeat, even at home. In the average household:
- There is too much fat in meals.
- The portion sizes are too large.
- Too much alcohol is consumed.
- Too many snacks, cakes, biscuits and sugary foods are consumed.
- Calorie-dense, nutrient-poor processed foods are often the default food choice.
Part of the problem is that calorie-dense foods are often cheap to produce, aggressively promoted, and affordable. Healthy food is often seen as expensive and is rarely promoted.
So, in our view, any strategy needs also to address eating at home. We should incentivise better supermarket food choices by promoting healthy alternatives over unhealthy choices.
In terms of activity, the provision of green space in Northampton is already a triumph. But we mainly see dog walkers and maybe the occasional walking group. If there is a children’s playground, we’ll see kids playing and mums and dads sitting at the side.
What else can we do in those green spaces? Walking is excellent, but you need to walk for a long time to significantly influence your calorie balance. Shorter, more intense exercise is time efficient and has additional health benefits over and above walking. How can we promote exercise in those green spaces or elsewhere?
We need to encourage kids to develop an exercise habit from an early age. Schools should put a lot of effort into encouraging their pupils to love exercise. Exercise should occupy a decent chunk of the timetable. Every child should be able to find activities that they enjoy that will keep them healthy. The aim should be to make activity and exercise part of their lifestyle growing up.
I also think we should have a walk to work or a cycle to work campaign. Sometimes when I suggest this to others, I’m met with incredulity. Walk to work? How absurd! But if it’s within a couple of miles, it’s perfectly feasible. It’s a great way to get rid of some calories, and it’s something you’ll do five days a week generally.
Cycling to work would be another option. They’ve introduced the Boris bikes in London, but in Northampton, we have the motorised e-scooters. These are great for reducing our carbon footprint, but they’re not going to help you burn many calories. Perhaps if bicycles were also provided, we could all be greener, fitter, healthier and lighter.
Provide extensive nutrition and lifestyle education
Nobody wants to become obese. But there is not enough knowledge and know-how about how to prevent it. Education is key.
One of the most common questions we get is, “what can I eat?” This comes after nutrition coaching, where we explain the government’s Eatwell plate, the ideal macronutrient split and healthy ingredients. People simply cannot translate macronutrient or ingredient level information into foods and meals they can eat. They are used to processed calorific food. When these are taken off the menu, people are flummoxed.
People also need to understand the difference between healthy and calorie balanced. Healthy is not the same as low or moderate calorie.
More help needs to be provided to help people understand the healthy nutrient and calorie content of home-cooked food and what constitutes good food choices. Parents should be able to provide healthy meals for their kids from an early age. To do this, they also need to be educated. To help this, incentives could be provided for attendance of adult education courses on nutrition, for example.
Children at school should learn about
- Calorie balance.
- Nutrition choices to prevent weight gain.
- The health dangers of takeaways and junk food.
- Ways to be more active.
Schools should promote healthy eating at lunchtimes and snack breaks. If necessary, financial support should be granted if it means healthy calorie-balanced meals will be available. All unhealthy food should be banned from the school environment. In cooking lessons, traditional learning such as baking cakes and biscuits should be replaced by preparing healthier foods.
The curriculum for nutrition, calorie balance, activity and lifestyle should be expanded and become a core component.
Come on, Northampton! Let’s all do our bit to help Northamptonshire become healthier and improve the stats on obesity in Northampton. We need to learn about food and cook from scratch when we’re at home. When we’re out, let’s frequent the healthier food vendors. And as well as walking or cycling to work where feasible, let’s develop exercise as a lifestyle habit.
Easier said than done? Absolutely, but it’s not going to change if we don’t give it a go!