Why it's wrong to tell our children obesity is 'normal'

DR MAX PEMBERTON: Why it’s wrong to tell our children obesity is ‘normal’

  • Evidence suggests that if someone has been overweight as a child, then they are very unlikely to be able to end up within a normal weight range as an adult 
  • Dr Max Pemberton is concerned that we have oversimplified the issue of obesity 
  • He explains by demonising food groups we ignore other reasons for obesity 

Would you buy a bottle of cola if it had pictures of gangrenous feet caused by diabetes emblazoned on the side? Would it make you think twice before giving it to your children? 

Just as cigarette packets feature gruesome images warning of lung cancer, researchers are now looking into how this logic can be applied to other products. A study in the U.S. has shown that putting visual warnings of the effects of sugary drinks on their labels significantly reduced consumption. 

Parents were shown images of sugary drinks with labels that included written or picture notices about their health risks. 

Images either depicted how much sugar was in each drink (such as in teaspoons), or the physical effects of consuming too much, such as tooth decay, weight gain and kidney disease. 

Evidence suggests that if someone has been overweight as a child, then they are very unlikely to be able to end up within a normal weight range as an adult

As a result, parents were significantly less likely to buy the products for their children, raising the prospect that this strategy could help fight childhood obesity. 

You might think that this would be good news, given that around a third of children in the UK are overweight or obese. 

Evidence suggests that if someone has been overweight as a child, then they are very unlikely to be able to end up within a normal weight range as an adult. They are basically condemned to a life of obesity and all the associated ill health that comes with it. 

Yet I worry that we have oversimplified the issue of obesity, particularly when it comes to children. We love to demonise food groups, putting them in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories. By focusing purely on sugar, we are missing out the other factors that are contributing to the obesity epidemic. 

We are failing to acknowledge the impact that an increasingly sedentary lifestyle has on children’s weight, for example. But, more than that, we’re not really tackling why some children are allowed to become overweight. 

Dr Max Pemberton (pictured) is concerned that we have oversimplified the issue of obesity. He explains by demonising food groups we ignore other reasons for obesity

Yes, it’s because they are consuming more calories than they are expending. The reasons for this, however, are complex. While obesity has long been associated with poverty and deprivation, recent trends point to rates rising among upper and middle – class men. There is also a correlation between the increasing levels of stress, depression and anxiety in men and rising levels of obesity. 

Meanwhile, women who live further away from green spaces are more likely to be fat. Feeling safe from crime is associated with lower rates of obesity. The prevalence of fast-food outlets in your area has a significant impact on BMI, too. And so on. 

The point here is that while people are fat because they consume more calories than they need, there are multiple social factors that also play a part in this. 

I’m not saying that sugar isn’t part of the problem, but neither is it the only reason for obesity. 

The latest research is useful in that it underlines that it is parents who choose what their children consume. We seem to forget this sometimes. 

Families have to take responsibility for what they serve their children and for laying down rules around what they are allowed to eat and when. 

Too often children are treated like adults, as if they are capable of making decisions about what they will eat. Given the choice, of course they’re going to pick chips, burgers and chocolate! It’s the parents’ job to supervise their meals and ensure they are eating a balanced diet. 

I want schools to do more, too. I think fizzy drinks and processed food — including chips — should be banned from the canteen. But parents need to take the lead and show teachers that they support moves like this. 

What worries me is that fat young children are becoming the norm. Years ago there might have been one chubby child in a class. It was a relative rarity. Now, nearly half the class are overweight. This results in obesity-creep — the more overweight children there are, the more ‘normal’ it seems, and so it’s less likely to be addressed as a problem. 

While the announcement that Disney has unveiled a plus-size character in its new short film Reflect has been met with applause for being inclusive, I am concerned that it’s part of a larger trend whereby obesity is being normalised. 

It’s being presented as an identity, like the colour of someone’s skin or their sex, which is to be celebrated, and the implication is that it’s not something that can — or should — be changed. 

Isn’t this a frightening message to be sending children when the fact is that being overweight or obese increases the risks of a whole host of health problems, from cancer and strokes to heart attacks and diabetes? 

I find our current attitude to obesity in children astonishingly complacent. I can think of no other condition so clearly linked to untold illness and misery that is brushed under the carpet in this way. It’s time to get the problem out in the open.

A-list health revelations don’t work 

Selena Gomez (pictured) has spoken about her bipolar diagnosis. Dr Max Pemberton is pleased that someone with such reach is talking about it

Selena Gomez has spoken about her bipolar diagnosis in an upcoming Apple TV+ documentary, My Mind & Me. On the one hand, I’m pleased someone with such a reach is talking about it. But rich celebrities speaking out can be a double-edged sword. Several years ago, I ran a drop-in support group for patients. Many of them had bipolar disorder. A few months in, a star was on TV talking about his diagnosis. The patients were furious. They said it gave a false impression of what it was like to live with the condition. No one in the room was a millionaire with a mansion. This man was acting as though he was the spokesperson for the condition when his experience of it was, they felt, so far removed from theirs. The group worried that the way stars portray mental illness means that there will be less understanding, not more. What are we saying about those who don’t produce great literary works or albums? Have they failed? Can’t we accept that for some with bipolar their biggest achievement is the fact that their lives are ordinary and unremarkable, despite their illness? 

Being a Scout is good for you, says new research, with the benefits stretching into middle age. Ex-Scouts were 35 per cent more likely to report excellent health at 50. I think the psychological benefits are key. The Scouting mindset is the antithesis of the spoilt, introspective, delicate snowflake generation. 

  • Germany has announced plans to legalise cannabis. In stark contrast to this, Suella Braverman was considering making it a class A drug. Part of me welcomes this. I loathe cannabis. I’ve seen the damage it can do to mental health; the lives it has ruined. But, and I say this with a heavy heart, I fear we have lost the war on drugs. Though, as my colleague Peter Hitchens argues, we never really started it. Cannabis is now so widespread that very young children can get it and, with the police turning a blind eye, there’s little parents can do. The time has come to legalise it (not decriminalise it, which just gives carte blanche to dealers), tax it and licence it. The tax should go to mental health provision. It’s the only solution I can think of.



Pumpkins are full of beta-carotene, which gets converted into vitamin A when eaten. They are also brimming with vitamin C, so may support the immune system

It’s Halloween today and, whether you go the whole hog with costumes and decorations, or grumpily ignore ‘trick or treaters’, you must get a pumpkin. They’re full of beta-carotene, which gets converted to vitamin A when eaten. They’re also brimming with vitamin C, so may support your immune system. Pumpkin soup is the ideal supper as we head into cold and flu season.

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