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Efforts to reduce childhood obesity must recognise that high levels of inequality are a crucial factor in rates of obesity or they risk children experiencing poverty and disadvantage falling further behind according to the NSW Council of Social Service.

NCOSS CEO Tracy Howe said a clear and explicit focus on children experiencing poverty and disadvantage was needed otherwise the Premier’s priority of reducing overweight and obesity rates would only benefit those from high socioeconomic backgrounds.

“In NSW, people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more than twice as likely to be obese as people from wealthier backgrounds. Children from low socioeconomic backgrounds are almost 3 times more likely to be persistently obese throughout childhood than those from more advantaged backgrounds.

“This happens because access to the things needed to live a healthy lifestyle just isn’t there for people experiencing poverty and disadvantage.” 

Ms Howe said with hearings continuing for the Inquiry into Childhood overweight and obesity it was important that the role inequality plays in the issue to be recognised.

“Policy responses to obesity have had a tendency to focus on an individual’s behaviour, and while they aim to help people make healthier lifestyle choices, they pay much less attention the context in which people live, learn, work or play.

“For children in particular what they eat or how they spend their time is strongly influenced by where they live. Children in low income families tend to live in areas with fewer green spaces, giving them fewer opportunities for physical activity. So they are more likely to engage in sedentary activities such as watching television, which exposes them to the marketing of unhealthy food and beverages.

“This influences their preferences, which their parents are less likely to challenge because healthy food is expensive. It is harder to ‘offset’ eating unhealthy food with exercise because after school sports are expensive and there are fewer parks nearby.”

Ms Howe said a new report from NCOSS, Overweight and obesity: Balancing the scales for vulnerable children, found if efforts to reduce childhood overweight and obesity do not address the broader context in which an individual’s choices are made and, most importantly, the factors that limit these choices, responses will meet with limited success.

“There is strong evidence that whole of community approaches – approaches that address multiple risk factors at the same time – are most effective at reducing obesity for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“Breakfast programs are one initiative we should be looking at to ensure children aren’t skipping breakfast and have a healthy start to the day. There is also the capacity to combine these programs with fitness activities and encouragement of a more active lifestyle.

“Given the much higher propensity for obesity in children with lower socioeconomic backgrounds this much form part of the approach we take in NSW.”

Download the report: Overweight and obesity: Balancing the scales for vulnerable children

Media contact: Laura Maclean 0412 867 658