Research into childhood obesity in Leicestershire secondary schools and the factors that deter young people from adopting healthy lifestyles concluded that the influence of peer pressure, cost of healthy foods, taste and hunger satisfaction and image proved to be a formidable barrier to the wholesale adoption of healthier ways of eating and exercising among young people.
The research, led by University of Leicester Professor of Primary Care Diabetes and Vascular Medicine Kamlesh Khunti, was conducted against the background of knowledge that escalating rates of childhood obesity are likely to have an impact on the incidence of coronary heart disease and type-2 diabetes. It is funded by the British Heart Foundation and has been published in the Journal of Public Health.
Dr Charmaine Griffiths, spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation, said: 'We are funding research like this aimed at finding ways to reverse the trend towards an obesity epidemic, which could affect so many of our children. Evidence from research must be followed on with firm action from the Government, such as that outlined in today's obesity strategy.'
Researchers established partnerships with five schools in inner-city areas serving a predominantly South Asian population and monitored diet and physical activity. People of South Asian origin living in Western countries are at greater risk of developing type-2 diabetes and coronary heart disease due to higher levels of insulin resistance, which may begin in childhood.
Researchers found that, although pupils had some basic knowledge of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, they only gave a low priority to its impact on their health.
School staff also cited factors such as poor PE facilities, competition from local food retailers and the intensity of the national curriculum as having a negative effect on pupils' lifestyle.
Pupils with limited money to spend on food seemed reluctant to try new foods and saw less healthy options such as chips as better value for money than fruit in terms of satisfying their hunger.
Playing sports proved generally more popular among boys than girls, while those whose religious commitments included attending evening faith schools had less time available for physical activity.
Identifying ways to reverse this proved difficult in all participating schools and the changes resulting from the research partnerships therefore proved to be quite modest. School meal providers made some changes and vending machines were removed. Salt was reduced, 'no chip days' and combination meals including healthy items were introduced.
Lifestyle messages were also incorporated into project work, for example in languages and mathematics.
Incentives to take up more physical exercise proved even more elusive. But some initiatives did take off, including dance sessions to attract girls and stamped 'passports,' with prizes for those who made healthier food choices or participated in extra-curricular physical activities.
Professor Khunti commented: 'Worryingly, pupils' lifestyle habits remained poor even after the project had ended. All the same, some limited changes did take place. Dietary habits did improve and more pupils began to take up physical activity. Teaching staff felt that the project had raised awareness and focused efforts on improving lifestyle choices.'