Families should eat their meals around the dinner table to improve their children’s health and boost brain power, according to the country’s top doctor.
Professor Dame Sally Davies said ‘mindless’ eating – in front of televisions or while using screens – is fuelling obesity and stunting child development.
The Chief Medical Officer believes societal trends, such as eating food on the go, is making it difficult to adopt healthy lifestyles.
Families should eat their meals around the dinner table to improve their children’s health and boost brain power, according to the country’s top doctor (stock)
Only by ‘re-balancing society’ with measures such as extending the sugar levy, will we turn the tide and improve the nation’s health, she told an event on healthcare prevention.
But the self-declared ‘nanny-in-chief’ also urged families to help themselves by adopting good habits like eating their meals together.
She pointed to a growing body of evidence showing how family mealtimes can both make people more mindful of what they eat, as well as improving children’s development.
She said: ‘My understanding of the research is that when people are using screens or watching the television that their calorie intake goes up and often their salt intake.
‘Because if you don’t concentrate on the food or the social interaction, it is fairly mindless and the feeling of satiation is not recognised as easily.
‘We would like people to sit down and eat together. And actually if you look at child development, they need to interact with their families with the adults, and mealtimes are a very important part of that.
‘So anything through education and support that will help those interactions – proper meal times with healthy food are going to help develop effectively and probably help our waistlines.’ Britain is in the midst of an obesity crisis with two-thirds of adults and a third of children now overweight or obese.
Obese children are around five times more likely to become obese adults, increasing their chances of illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and heaping further pressure on the NHS.
HOW FAT ARE BRITISH CHILDREN?
English children are fatter than ever – official data revealed in October that one in every 25 10 to 11-year-olds are severely obese, the fattest possible category.
And out of around 556,000 children of primary school-leaving age in the UK, 170,000 are overweight to some degree, figures showed in May.
More than one in ever five 11-year-olds are obese – equivalent to around 111,000 children – and being so fat means they are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer or have a stroke.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health say children should be weighed every year at school because ‘danger is on the horizon’ and the UK is lagging behind the rest of the EU in tackling obesity.
Experts have also warned children gain weight ‘at a drastic rate’ when they’re at school.
Sugar in food is known to be contributing to the swelling waistlines of children, with huge amounts of popular foods crammed full of sugar.
A sugar tax has reduced the effects of some soft drinks, but breakfast cereals can still contain more than 70 per cent of an entire day’s sugar in a single bowl.
Even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contain more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.
‘Unless we tackle this obesity crisis, today’s obese children will become tomorrow’s obese adults whose years of healthy life will be shortened by a whole host of health problems,’ Izzi Seccombe, of the Local Government Association, said in May.
Studies have repeatedly linked both screen time and watching TV to rising levels of childhood obesity, both in terms of sedentary lifestyles and exposure to junk food advertising.
Experts have also found that eating food while on the go does not fill you up as much as sitting down to a meal at a table – even when the calories are the same.
Hugo Fry, of pharma giant Sanofi UK, told the ‘Prevention and the future of health’ event that environment was key.
He said: ‘One of the reasons that drives the UK up the obesity charts is the way we eat the environment we do it in.
‘So we are massive TV eater, grab and go eaters. The other end of the chart the French they sit down as a family at every single meal breakfast lunch and dinner. At work they sit down at lunch. Time out – it’s good for your mental wellbeing too.’ With 50 per cent of all illnesses now caused by ‘preventable risk’ such as alcohol, obesity, smoking and lack of exercise, Dame Sally warned that advice alone was not enough.
She said structured reforms, including extending the sugar levy and food reformulation, were vital to make it easier for people to live healthily.
She added: ‘If you look at outcomes think how many lives were saved by seat belts. Think how many lives were saved by the smoking ban in public places.
‘Think how many lives could be saved by extending the sugar levy and getting better reformulation.
‘Politicians do need to listen to me and I keep telling them this. We do need to do the structural things.’ Experts estimate that almost a quarter (24 per cent) of all deaths in England and Wales could be prevented through good quality healthcare and wider public health interventions.
The rising elderly population and people living for longer with multiple health conditions means health professionals are keen to push prevention ahead of cure.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said obesity was one of the biggest challenges facing the health service.
He said: ‘Professor Dame Sally Davies is absolutely right. The real problem is that we have too many families who cannot cook. So the easiest thing is to buy takeaways or ready meals and sit around the television and eat.
‘Families should make an effort to have the TV off around meal time and have a conversation while eating. It slows the speed of eating and means you wolf down fewer calories.’ Dr Max Davie, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: ‘There is some evidence to suggest that watching screens can distract children from feeling full.
‘What’s more, we know that children are often exposed to adverts for unhealthy food and drink whilst watching their favourite TV shows, which in turn can lead to higher calorie intake.
‘Our Screen Time Guidance recommends that parents and their children build screen time around positive family activities – such as sharing meals together.’