The blur of statistics by Dr Nicola Eccles

The obesity ‘crisis’ which frequents the UK media headlines manifests itself in a blur of statistics.  Often described as ‘alarming’ or ‘shocking’ these numbers, percentages and comparisons steer us away from the people, lives and communities for whom obesity is a lived reality.  The real issues, which are critical to addressing are clouded by the statistical focus.

1 in 5 leave primary school obese

In relation to children and young people, we are told, for example, that 1 in 10 children enter primary school obese…but 1 in 5 leave primary school classified as obese.   In terms of dietary intake, statistics also inform us that less than 16% of children age 5-15 eat the recommended portions of fruit and vegetables per day.  Sugar and saturated fat intake on the other hand intake exceeds the recommended government intake across all children.

Socio-Economic ‘health gap’

The numbers are useful to bookmark the dimensions of this health issue.  They are also able to demonstrate the cultural and socio-economic variations in overweight and obesity.  The socio-economic ‘health gap’ is a crucial factor in the implementation of thoughtful interventions.

Statistics

Obesity statistics appear to be a moving target depending on what source you read.

Statistics and numbers only tell the surface facts.  Yet the stories behind these statistics are the true vehicle for understanding and change. The response to a statistic is frequently a reaction, an action, by those in positions of authority or influence.  This includes knee jerk reactions, and decisions around the best way to ‘remedy’ these statistics.

Depending on your philosophy, or take, on the best course of action to reduce and prevent obesity, such knee jerk reactions could include the sugar ta or the ban on advertising ‘unhealthy’ products for children.  Many politicians and spokespersons for child health argue that “not enough is being done”, but how do we know what should be done and how are these decisions made?

Prioritising statistics has meant that reasons, narratives and histories around communities, families and individuals struggling with overweight, obesity, or even just the ‘obesogenic environment’ go unheard.

The narrative for disparate individuals

The narrative for disparate individuals and those who are connected with them is the story upon which we should base everything else.  All decisions and considerations should be founded on the lived reality of those who are experiencing struggles with regulating body weight or lacking the knowledge to prevent the onset of obesity, particularly in children.  Peters et al (2002) wrote many years ago about the difficulties individuals experience in trying to maintain weight (rather than it consistently increasing) this applies to most of us living in developed countries in contemporary society with it’s characteristic, energy saving data driven technology, convenience interventions alongside increased food consumption possibilities at every juncture we encounter.

The Wonder of Me

The Wonder of Me recognises that understanding people, gauging the multiple influences of family dynamics and cultural habits are the first steps to change.  The pilot project currently running utilises ‘The Change Tree’ digital game and the qualitative impact evaluation has prioritised stories about the lives and complexity of families, often living in deprivation who are struggling with weight and obesity.

The Wonder of Me recognises that in order to create the change we need to listen to the reality of lived experience.  We use focus groups and observations with children, parents and teachers and classroom setting to understand how food features in the lives of our participants.

The Change Tree

The Change Tree is an innovative and visually appealing interactive game for KS1 children which aims to help them understand the link between what they choose to consume, and their physical self and mood physiology.  At The Wonder of Me we recognise the limitations of one game in the complex lives of children, but crucially, aims to use the qualitative data around lived experience to build scaffolding activities for both children and parents and to enhance the existing game to increase its relevance and impact for children who, over time, become agents of positive healthy changes.

Qualitative Research Insights

Our initial qualitative research has revealed insightful data around the complex problem of obesity, both in terms of the foods that the children eat as well as their levels of activity (or inactivity) within our pilot school and surrounding community.

  • Gaming is an effective way to engage young children, as it speaks to them in a familiar language. Despite the controversy around high levels of gaming present in this group of children, the benefits of using a game to interact with children outweigh the drawbacks of additional screen based time.
  • Communities and families experiencing poverty and economic deprivation face a series of challenges beyond the cost of food which impact on food choices. Parents and carers face, on a daily basis, overwhelming issues.  Considering whether or not a child has eaten enough fruit or vegetables comes second to the adversity many adults face in their personal lives.  This includes low level depression, stress, volatile relationships, addiction and very low income.
  • Disengagement with children due to a lack of parenting knowledge and internal stress means that cooking together, eating together and the routine that goes into the preparation of food becomes sidelined.
  • All parents want to do their best for their children. Information and education is not the answer.  Most parents and carers know what to do. However, enacting this knowledge seems like an impossible task in comparison to the other perceived demands.  The practice and confidence needed in order to implement change are clearly lacking.

Stay tuned for how we, at The Wonder of Me intend to do our small part in addressing this complex problem….

Peters et al (2002) From instinct to intellect: the challenge of maintaining healthy weight in the modern world. Obesity reviews, 3 (69-74)

 

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