Parenting classes could reverse UK’s obesity crisis

Parenting classes teaching people to be more strict with their children could reverse Britain’s obesity epidemic, experts say.

Parents on the eight-week courses are encouraged to show their children they are ‘in charge’, in a bid to make families more healthy.

For example, instead of asking children what they would like to eat, youngsters are offered a choice of only carrots or peas.

Since the classes were introduced a decade ago, the rise in obesity levels has been almost entirely reversed among four and five-year-olds in Leeds.

One of the first cities to adopt this parenting approach to reduce obesity, it has seen the proportion of pre-school children who are obese fall from 9.4 per cent around 2014 to 8.8 per cent in the three years to 2016.

Experts say this is ‘unprecedented’ and a vast improvement on the continuing obesity crisis in England, where over the same period the obesity rate stayed largely the same.

Parents on the eight-week courses are encouraged to show their children they are ‘in charge’, in a bid to make families more healthy

In the country as a whole, 9.4 per cent of four and five-year-olds remained obese.

The results are important because child obesity is on the rise, with more than a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese.

Professor Susan Jebb, who led a study on the strategy from the University of Oxford, said: ‘The most dramatic thing is if you look at it by deprivation, the most deprived group in Leeds is doing especially well. That is astonishing.

‘Going into parenting behaviour is a promising approach.

‘If you catch very young children, parents have a heck of a lot of control over their lifestyle. Under fives don’t pop to the shop to buy something.

‘Their every meal is what parents and carers provide.’

British teenagers aged 15 to 19 have the fifth highest obesity level in the developed world, the study also showed 

British teenagers aged 15 to 19 have the fifth highest obesity level in the developed world, the study also showed 


  • Week 1 – set parenting goals 
  • Week 2 – how to juggle life with young children 
  • Week 3 – responding to children’s needs without giving in to demands 
  • Week 4 – tips to reduce stress at mealtimes 
  • Week 5 – active play ideas 
  • Week 6 – learn about portion sizes for under-fives, food groups and labels and swapping to healthy snacks 
  • Week 7 – managing children’s behaviour 
  • Week 8 – planning the future

HENRY is all about parents giving children choices while showing they are in charge:

Don’t say to your child: What do you want to eat?

Do say: Do you want carrots or broccoli?

Don’t say to your child: Are you ready for bed?

Do say: It’s bedtime – where do you want to read your bedtime story?

Don’t say to your child: Thank you for being helpful – have some chocolate as a reward.

Do say: Thank you for being helpful – as a reward, add another brick to the tower we are building.

Don’t say to your child: Switch off the television.

Do say: Shall I switch off the television or would you like to?

The two-month HENRY programme, which stands for ‘Health, Exercise, Nutrition for the Really Young’, has been rolled out in 34 local authority areas since 2008.

It is aimed at giving parents the emotional skills to help their children be healthier, covering everything from diet to exercise, screen time and bedtimes, as well as helping them resist ‘pester power’.

Kim Roberts, chief executive of the charity HENRY, said: ‘Authoritarian parenting is when children are told what to eat and what to do, such as being banned from leaving the table until they have eaten their sprouts.

‘Permissive parenting is asking children what they want to do.

‘But HENRY encourages a third approach known as authoritative parenting, where parents make it clear they are in charge, but also respond to their children.’

The parenting classes saw obesity rates for deprived children plummet from 11.5 to 10.5per cent in Leeds.


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. 

Results presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow also show obesity rates in affluent children fell from 6.8 to 6 per cent.

The declines were seen from 2009-10 through to 2016-17.

Parents on the HENRY programme learn simple strategies, like not asking children what they want for a meal but asking them if they want carrots or peas, so they choose a healthy option.

Instead of being asked if they are ready for bed, children are asked where they want to read their bedtime story.

Children are given controlled choices in every area of life, for instance instead of being asked to stop watching television, a parent asks whether they would like to turn the television off or whether the parent should do it.

Mrs Roberts said: ‘A good example is how biscuits, sweets and ice cream are used very often in families as rewards, treats and bribes, or taken away as punishments.

‘HENRY parents find that using a more authoritative parenting style with different non-food rewards, such as adding a brick to a tower that the family build together over a few days, is a great way of encouraging cooperation.’

Every health visitor, nursery nurse and children’s centre worker in Leeds has been trained in the HENRY approach.

The eight-week training programme, held at children’s centres, has been attended by 6,000 families in the decade since 2009. 

The study assessing the parenting classes compared the progress of children in Leeds with 15 other cities including Newcastle, Bristol and Liverpool.

Similar to Leeds in terms of population, taxpayers and unemployment rates, these cities had not adopted the HENRY programme and saw their child obesity rates stay constant at 9.8 per cent.

Researchers cannot say for sure that it is the parenting classes which are responsible, but Mrs Roberts said: ‘We know from national data that this is unusual.

‘To see this kind of reduction is unprecedented. The indicators are that this isn’t happening in other cities.’

In Leeds, there were 625 fewer obese reception-age children in 2016 to 2017 – a reduction of one in 16 children.

Professor Jebb said: ‘I hope Public Health England will take a close look at these results to identify the strategies which may have led to this improvement so we can then roll out the examples of good practice more widely across the country.’ 

Public health minister Seema Kennedy said: ‘It’s great to see some promising reductions in childhood obesity in young children for some of the most disadvantaged groups in Leeds and I hope we can learn more about this kind of work in the future.’


Obesity is defined as an adult having a BMI of 30 or over.

A healthy person’s BMI – calculated by dividing weight in kg by height in metres, and the answer by the height again – is between 18.5 and 24.9. 

Among children, obesity is defined as being in the 95th percentile.

Percentiles compare youngsters to others their same age. 

For example, if a three-month-old is in the 40th percentile for weight, that means that 40 per cent of three-month-olds weigh the same or less than that baby.

Around 58 per cent of women and 68 per cent of men in the UK are overweight or obese. 

The condition costs the NHS around £6.1billion, out of its approximate £124.7 billion budget, every year.

This is due to obesity increasing a person’s risk of a number of life-threatening conditions.

Such conditions include type 2 diabetes, which can cause kidney disease, blindness and even limb amputations.

Research suggests that at least one in six hospital beds in the UK are taken up by a diabetes patient.

Obesity also raises the risk of heart disease, which kills 315,000 people every year in the UK – making it the number one cause of death.

Carrying dangerous amounts of weight has also been linked to 12 different cancers. 

This includes breast, which affects one in eight women at some point in their lives.

Among children, research suggests that 70 per cent of obese youngsters have high blood pressure or raised cholesterol, which puts them at risk of heart disease.

Obese children are also significantly more likely to become obese adults. 

And if children are overweight, their obesity in adulthood is often more severe.  

As many as one in five children start school in the UK being overweight or obese, which rises to one in three by the time they turn 10.