Childhood obesity is falling across most of the region – though more than a third of youngsters in most areas are leaving primary school overweight.
Only a day after leading health experts called for the Government to address the obesity endemic among the region’s youngsters, new figures show that overall the percentage of four to five-year-olds and 10 to 11-year-olds who are heavier than they should be has dropped in six out of the North East’s seven primary care trusts catchments.
In Newcastle the number of Reception age children who are overweight or obese is down 11.7% year-on-year, with a 9% fall in Gateshead and 7.9% in County Durham. However in North Tyneside the figure has risen by almost 9%.
And despite improvements, by the time North East children go to secondary school more than 20% of them are classed as obese.
Dr Dawn Scott, acting head of public health at Newcastle City Council, said she was heartened by the latest figures but appreciated there was still much more to be done.
“We are aware there is a problem in Newcastle but we are encouraged by the latest figures, which show signs of improvement,” she said.
“The council continues to offer an extensive range of healthy eating and physical activity programmes for families, at locations across the city, and we have started looking closely at environmental factors such as the number of fast food outlets and how close they are to people’s homes.”
The director for public health in North Tyneside - which has the highest percentage of overweight children in both Reception and Year Six classes in Tyne and Wear - Marietta Evans, said she saw the increase in her borough as “a blip rather than a trend” and that “there is clear evidence that the work we do is making a difference.”
“We want our children and their families to be supported to achieve a healthy lifestyle and encouraged to take action, rather than stigmatised,” she said.
“Parents with children who are overweight receive one-to-one support from school nurses.”
How can town planning tackle obesity?
Tim Townshend, Newcastle University’s acting head of school and director of Planning and Urban Design, has been studying what can be done to try and combat the obesity epidemic from a planning point of view.
“Our work suggests that some things really encourage a more sedentary lifestyle, more consumption of unhealthy, energy dense food, and fail to support healthy lifestyle choices,” he said.
“One thing we’ve seen is the huge increase of fast food outlets, and clusters of them – If you think now about some shopping streets in Newcastle, places like the West Road, where there used to be butchers and bakers, now it seems every other shop is a takeaway.
“But we also know that people no longer take physical activity as part of their daily routine.
“Children don’t walk or cycle to school, adults don’t walk to work, and families don’t pop to their local shops – they’ll get in the car and go and do a big monthly shop at a supermarket. That all just fuels the obesity epidemic.
“My background is in urban planning and we have to think what we can do to moderate or reverse the rise of obesity.
“We need to completely rethink shopping areas – and while fast food is one problem there are others.
“Often where you have takeaways you also have cheap alcohol and betting shops and it all creates a very unhealthy environment.
“A total ban is not the way to go but obviously some places are more sensitive and we could maybe look at throwing up a 400m exclusion zone around schools, parks and community centres – places where children will go – and say no more fast food.
“More generally, we need to also look at how planning can support people to take healthy lifestyle decisions.
“If we are building new houses, particularly in developments of more than 50 homes, perhaps we need a requirement to include community gardens or allotments, or cycling provision, so that people can make those healthy choices every day.”