Dr Huw Davies ST5
Welsh Obesity Society, @WelshObesity
The Association for the Study of Obesity,@UK_ASO
What if we faced an infectious disease outbreak that affected 25% or more of our paediatric population by age 5? 50-80% of those worst affected by it will carry the adverse effects for life. It is a key cause of chronic ill health, linked to Type 2 Diabetes, Sleep Apnoea, Cardiovascular Disease, and Stroke. Insidiously, it creates barriers that prevent those affected from engaging with its cure. It might shorten lives for 20 years or more and is set to create a huge drain on healthcare and social care funding.
There would be surely be an outcry against such a plague, and we would marshal all of society’s resources to fight it....
This is the situation for the obesity outbreak, with the greatest implications being for children. In Wales, obesity adds significantly to the burden of disease for society’s poorest. A key thread running through the Child and Adult Obesity meeting, held on the 26thof June, was that childhood sets the trajectory for a lifetime, for the better or the worse.
Lucy O’Loughlin (@oloughlin_lucy) from Public Health Wales (@PublicHealthW) presented the scale of the problem. Current surveillance at reception demonstrates clearly that while the proportion who are overweight and obese is stabilising (albeit at the highest levels in the UK), severe obesity is increasing in prevalence. 2/3 of those overweight in reception will be obese adults. Meanwhile parents stress over “skinny-looking” or “under-fed” children because we can no longer accurately picture how a child should look; only <1% of those entering reception class are underweight.
Public Health Network Cymru: Obesity
Public Health Wales Observatory: Obesity in Wales (2019)Public Health Wales: Overweight & Obesity
Welsh Government Consultation Document: Healthy Weight: Healthy Wales
BBC: Obesity overtaking smoking as biggest Welsh health risk
The findings of the Genetics Of (Severe) Obesity Study (GOOS) were presented by Dr Agatha van der Klaauw. Genetic screening approaches show potential to understand the mechanisms of weight gain and appetite in the most severe obese, particularly if presenting at an early age or associated with liver or gastrointestinal problems. Some genetic obesity syndromes are also associated with Autistic Spectrum Disorder; children with ASD already face a high risk of obesity because of their challenges with diet and engagement with physical activity.
GOOS Useful Resources
Aneurin Bevan Health Board are leading the way with “Connect”, a multidisciplinary service aimed at the most obese which provides intensive psychological, dietetic, behavioural and medical support for whole families. We heard from several members of their team, including Drs Hazel Baker and Naomi Swift (@ClinPsychNome) on the impact of cultural, social and psychological factors. Adverse childhood events are being highlighted over and over as serious contributors to poor population health and sadly in Wales we carry a high burden of these. Obesity is not the simple consequence of a lack of willpower, but is a highly stigmatised disease produced predictably by a combination of societal factors, family circumstances, and leads to a psychological hole which is extremely hard to escape. Olivia Colleypriest (@livveycolley22) also gave a dietician’s view on the evidence around very low calorie diets in children and adolescents – an underdeveloped area of study.
Sara Jones of Swansea University also provided evidence that the very earliest childhood behaviours are formative and crucial. Breastfed infants are less likely to become obese; while formula fed can often mean over-fed, with pressure to achieve a schedule interfering with the development of appropriate hunger cues from the baby. With the introduction of solids disparities clearly emerge between those receiving high calorie loads from infant food products which set the tone of over-exposure to calories and sugary taste experiences. Infants whose early exposure is instead to whole foods, especially vegetables, seem to benefit throughout childhood and beyond. For the most impact we must seek to promote the healthiest feeding choices for every family.
HENRY(@HENRYHealthy) is an early childhood intervention programme piloted in Leeds, which seeks to build health parenting behaviours while reducing stress and pressure on parents. We heard from the charity’s CEO, Kim Roberts, on the impact the programme has had and their hopes to spread its lessons elsewhere including Wales.
Dr Nalda Wainwright (@naldaw) of Trinity St David gave a fascinating presentation on “Physical Literacy” (@Phys_Lit_Wales) – how early motor competence supports engagement with physical activity for a lifetime. Motor delay is common in areas of deprivation and this leads to a downward spiral of lack of confidence and disengagement, with exclusion by peers all the attendant psychological harms. She highlighted the SKIP programme as an early years intervention which can mitigate this serious inequality in outcomes. Over the past decades children have lost many opportunities to play, particularly missing the instruction of older children in basic skills such as throwing, catching, even running.
The final presentation, from Dr. Rebekah Pryce (General/Endocrine Paediatrician at ABUHB), reiterated the need for urgent action, from clinicians but also at all levels of society. Setting up Connect required perseverance and they faced several false starts. However, the business case for obesity interventions should be overwhelming – even small reductions could have huge health and economic implications, let alone the multigenerational impact on individual families. Connect aims to provide person-centred care for some of the most at-risk children and families; the psychological, behavioural and dietary interventions required are not trivial.
The meeting’s organisers were proud to provide an all-female panel for the Q&A, with a truly multidisciplinary range of voices. The need for leadership at all levels to prioritise population health and preventive approach was highlighted. Education for parents and professionals is a must, with an emphasis on care and support rather than simply another lecture or source of anxiety. Health visitors were identified as the professionals with the greatest scope to work with families to build skills for life; however, this is one of the greatest areas of shortage and under-resourcing at present. With Welsh Government support we can hope that a change is going to come....
Dr Annabel Greenwood