Families tell of improved health after Leeds becomes first UK city to reduce childhood obesity

Claire Covey, 38, of Armley, Leeds, with son Henry.
Claire Covey, 38, of Armley, Leeds, with son Henry.
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Families have told how their health was transformed by weight-loss programmes which saw Leeds become the first UK city to reduce childhood obesity.

The work of public health specialists in the city has been praised after research found that help for parents has spared hundreds of youngsters from obesity.

The results of programmes set up to help improve children's diets and boost exercise were analysed in a a study involving the University of Oxford.

It found the average prevalence of obesity among of five-year-old children in Leeds fell from 9.4 per cent to 8.8 per cent between 2009 and 2017, while remaining unchanged in comparable cities. at 9.8 per cent.

In England as a whole it fell from 9.5 per cent to 9.4 per cent in the same period.

Claire Covey, mum of Henry, one, and Jack, six, said she and her family have been more active since she attended the sessions last year which helped them to bond.

She said the family now plan healthy meals together and have taken small steps to get more exercise, such as getting off the bus earlier and walking.

Miss Covey said: "It's absolutely amazing. I know parents that feed their kids and they're fed, that's great, they don't go to bed on an empty stomach.

"I know some kids won't look at some veg, never mind eating them. My boys go for the veg first.

"They have the chocolate, but they make the chocolate. They're involved in the process of what they actually eat."

The 38-year-old, of Cedar Avenue, added: "It bonds you even close than what you are as a family."

Amy Rourke, 20, of Woodbridge Lawn in Kirkstall, started sessions when her one-year-old Anthony was just seven months old.

She said: "I would really recommend it because it really helped."

Advice at the sessions including praising her child for positive steps. Miss Rourke said: "The other day he ate mushrooms. We're struggling with fruit and veg so it's a big step for him. We praised him for it and he got a big treat."

Jo Medd, regional manager for the charity HENRY (Health Exercise Nutrition for the Really Young), said: "It's great we have the statistics to back up what we all know, which is that the programme works.

"They're making little changes in their lives and it's building up. That benefit that change is possible is absolutely fundamental."

"Information is everywhere, everybody knows you have to eat five fruit and vegetables a day, but actually supporting families to do that is a different thing."

Figures for Leeds show a 6.4 per cent reduction in the proportion of reception-age youngsters with obesity, equivalent to 625 fewer obese children in the city, the research found.

Dr Ian Cameron, director of public health at Leeds City Council, said: “This research is great evidence to use as we play our part in helping children and adults live longer, healthier lives.

“With national data showing one in 10 children are obese by the time they start school and two thirds remaining obese when they leave primary school, we’re delighted to be making positive progress in Leeds. “

The research found that the obesity rate among the city’s most deprived youngsters fell the most, from 11.5 per cent to 10.5 per cent, after the programme was aimed at poorer areas.

Professor Susan Jebb, of Oxford University, who is the Government’s former obesity tsar, said: “If you look at it by deprivation, the most deprived group in Leeds is doing especially well. That is astonishing.”

One in three children leaves primary school overweight or obese and the number of children classed as seriously obese is at a record high, national figures show.

Paul Gately, professor of exercise and obesity at Leeds Beckett University, said the research results followed years of work in the city to develop expertise in tackling the issue. He said: “There has been a hotbed of expertise in Leeds for the last 20 years. It’s not a surprise that this expertise and support is leading to big changes.

“It’s about the whole of Leeds working better together and in a more collaborative way. We should really celebrate that Leeds has really got its act together and started working more efficiently.”

Findings from the study were presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Glasgow.

The report said: “The prevalence of obesity in Leeds for children starting school fell significantly over time, whereas comparable cities and England showed no change

“There is a promising decline in the prevalence of obesity among young children in Leeds, especially for the most disadvantaged families, which is helping to reduce inequalities.”