UK Politics

Poorer children more likely to be obese, says Anna Soubry

Anna Soubry
Image caption Anna Soubry said parents needed to pay more attention to serving proper meals

Children from poor backgrounds are more likely to be overweight, a minister has claimed, blaming "an abundance of bad food" for the situation.

Anna Soubry said 50 years ago youngsters from deprived households were taunted for being "skinny runts", but this state of affairs had reversed.

"When I walk around, you can almost now tell somebody's background by their weight," she told the Daily Telegraph.

Campaigners said government policies were exacerbating child poverty.

Ministers have threatened food manufacturers with legislation unless they cut the amount of fat, sugar and salt in their products and urged firms to sign up to the voluntary "responsibility deal" to reduce calories.

The Conservative MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire, a junior minister in the Department of Health who is in charge of public health, said a third of children leaving primary school were overweight or obese and the poorest were among those most at risk.

During her school days, Ms Soubry said poorer children were known as "skinny runts", because there were not getting the right food.

"You could tell the demography of children by how thin they were. You could see by looking at their eyes," she said.

'Breakfast buns'

But she said there was a now a link between childhood poverty and obesity: "Obviously, not everybody who is overweight comes from deprived backgrounds but that's where the propensity lies."

She added: "It is a heartbreaking fact that people who are some of the most deprived in our society are living on an inadequate diet. But this time it's an abundance of bad food."

Too many parents, she added, believed there was no alternative to junk food because it was cheap. She expressed concern at the number of children whose breakfast consisted of packet of crisps and a fizzy drink or fried meat in a bun.

She also said she lamented the growth of "TV meals" at the expense of families sitting around their dinner tables.

According to Department of Health figures, the poorest children are almost twice as likely to be obese than the richest.

'Not working'

The Child Poverty Action Group said there was clear connection between deprivation and obesity but ministers needed to revisit their own policies rather than blame parents.

"The real reason why our obesity problem is going to get bigger in the years ahead is because our child poverty problem is going to get much bigger as a result of the government's own policies," said the organisation's head of policy Imran Hussain.

"Poor children are much more likely to miss out on healthy food on cost grounds than children living in households with average incomes. And research shows that when the incomes of poor families rise, parents spend the gains on improving the diets of their children through buying fresh fruit."

Labour, which has launched a consultation on the case for statutory limits on the amount of sugar and salt in children's food, said the government was "doing nothing" to tackle the obesity crisis among children.

"It is clear that their voluntary approach is not working," said shadow health minister Diane Abbott. "If the government fails to act we will continue storing up huge problems for the country and the NHS in the long term."

Education Secretary Michael Gove has asked two restaurant owners to examine how nutrition in schools can be improved, but TV chef Jamie Oliver has criticised the government's approach, saying healthy food standards are being eroded.

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