To tackle to growing problem of obesity in the UK, Public Health England (PHE) has launched a new campaign which encourages parents to “Look for 100 calorie snacks, two a day max”. Figures show that two thirds of primary school children are leaving school either overweight or obese and it’s hoped that new initiative will tackle the epidemic.

However, campaigners have expressed their concerns that it could lead to an increase in the number of children developing eating disorders. One eating disorder charity, Beat, has said that although it’s important to try and address the obesity epidemic in children, we need to consider the impact it has on their mental health. Although the message is aimed at parents, it will still engage young people and could be harmful to those who are already at risk of developing an eating disorder.

A spokesman said in a statement: “We have heard from parents and treatment providers who cite the promotion of anti-obesity messages to children as a factor in the onset and maintenance of eating disorders. Public health professionals must consider the wider impact of their campaigns, including the potential impact on mental health. We have heard from our service users who are concerned that this campaign may increase the risk of young people developing an eating disorder.”

The charity have also highlighted that fact that counting calories isn’t always the best way to monitor health. For example, some 100 calorie snacks still contain high levels of sugar and would be considered unhealthy. There are also some healthy snacks that contain over 100 calories, and most experts would agree that these are a better choice even though they have a higher calorie count.

“A 100 calorie drink or snack with high levels of processed sugar will not reduce feelings of hunger, whereas many healthy snacks are over 100 calories and can play an important role in a healthy and balanced diet,” Beat argued. “Focusing on calories rather than on healthy and balanced eating is unhelpful. We encourage Public Health England to listen to concerns about the impact this campaign could have on those at risk of developing an eating disorder and change the campaign to focus more on healthy eating rather than calorie counting.”

Paediatric dietitian Judy More agreed that PHE need to move away from calorie counting and focus on children’s overall health instead.“100 calorie snacks will not be suitable for all children,” she said. “I think listing recommended (low sugar, high nutrients) snacks and non-recommended snacks (high sugar, low nutrients) would have been a better way forward. I also think one sugary snack per day is better for teeth than two sugary snacks per day. Evidence shows limiting sugar containing foods to four episodes per day (e.g. the three meals and no more than one snack) reduces the risk of dental caries. They seem to have overlooked that research funded by the WHO and carried out in England.”

But PHE have argued that this new campaign was designed to help parents to make healthier choices for their children, and although it takes eating disorders seriously, it’s difficult to tackle both at the same time. Figures show that 34% of children aged 10 and 11 are overweight or obese, while only 1.3% are considered underweight. Obesity is a problem that continues into adulthood. An estimated 61% of adults in the UK are now considered overweight, and it’s hoped that addressing the problem during childhood will have a knock on effect.

PHE’s chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone argued that “Our Change4Life campaign helps millions of families make healthier choices. Every campaign encourages families to eat more fruit and vegetables and use front of the pack labelling to choose healthier foods. This campaign responds directly to parents’ concerns and our campaigns are rigorously tested with parents to ensure they provide helpful and practical advice. It’s not about counting calories, it’s a simple tip for parents to help change their children’s snacking habits.”

She added: “There’s no doubt people coping with the difficulty of an eating disorder require additional support. But with more than a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese, Change4Life was developed to help tackle the childhood obesity crisis gripping our nation. This particular campaign responds directly to parents’ concerns about unhealthy snacks and provides tips to help them choose healthier options.”

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