Obesity: Scotland’s sweet tooth

Young kids struggling to run in PE, only eating junk food at lunchtime, sugar highs and lows, and morbidly obese before they’re in double digits… It’s upsetting for any teacher to witness, but unfortunately it’s the reality in many Scottish classrooms. We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic.

With the lure of cheap fizzy drinks and sweets heavily marketed across TV and social media, it’s not surprising that young people are consuming more junk food than ever.

“Both children and adults are affected by the environment that we have created,” says Dr Anna Gryka, policy officer at Obesity Action Scotland. While it’s depressing to admit that Scotland’s sweet tooth is culturally ingrained, it does mean that it can be changed. It only takes 21 days for a habit to be formed, and young people can be more easily broken out of bad habits than adults.

Anna cites not being physically active and having a bad diet as the main causes of obesity in children, although genetics may play a part, too. However, there is plenty that can be done to stop childhood obesity from taking over kids’ lives.


The main culprit is junk food – it shouldn’t make up such a large portion of our diet. “A quarter of the food we eat has no nutritional value,” says Anna. “Advertising and marketing is everywhere. At sporting events, there’s a lot of sponsorship of unhealthy food and you’re pushed into consuming food that’s bad for you. It’s hard to avoid,” she notes.

Irn Bru, Maccy D’s burgers or a bag of Monster Munch: none of this is actually food in the sense that it nourishes your body. While the calorific intake may be high, these products aren’t providing the necessary fuel for a young person’s body, and it only means they will eat more. Add to the mix that sugar is highly addictive, then it becomes a big problem. While it’s fine to occasionally have a fizzy drink or a chocolate bar as a snack, when was the last time you saw a pupil eat an apple at break?

While no teenager wants to give up their daily Coca Cola hit, the health risks involved in childhood obesity are scary. One of the most shocking statistics about obesity is that scientists predict the current generations of obese people may not live as long as their grandparents.

“Obesity is related to many other health concerns, too,” says Anna. “It’s linked to 13 types of cancer, to diabetes, and other health complications.”

An obese child is more likely to be obese as an adult, but obesity is preventable and easy to reverse. “Children’s diets are much worse than adult’s in Scotland,” says Anna. And that’s cause for concern.


Another problem is that children are more stationary than ever: they watch more TV, and play with iPads and phones for hours on end. They’re stationary rather than actively playing.

“In the UK, we don’t have guidelines on the maximum screen time. In other countries, governments have suggested that two hours should be the limit,” says Anna.

21% of pregnant women in Scotland are obese, which can lead to complications during birth, and health concerns like diabetes. “This might mean that the baby is heavier than it should be,” says Anna. “A baby with an obese mother is more likely to grow up to be an obese child and adult.”


Evidence clearly shows that deprivation plays a major role in obesity, and unfortunately the more deprived areas in Scotland are more likely to bring up obese children – and adults.

“Children from deprived communities are more likely to be exposed to junk food marketing,” says Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “It’s vital the government takes bold action to tackle the obesogenic environment and support people to make healthy food choices, by restricting junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed and by limiting the number of fast food outlets opening near schools and colleges.” There’s a lot the government can do by setting regulations: recently the Mayor of London has curbed issuing fast food licences within 400m of schools.

Of course, it’s not just about advertising although it can be insidious and affect you subconsciously. Children who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds have time and cash-strapped parents who are doing the best they can with the resources available.

Junk food, takeaways and ready meals are often easier than preparing a meal from scratch. Nutritional education in the classroom, encouraging and educating children on a balanced diet, and introducing them to delicious healthy food can have a knock-on effect on parents.

The Scottish Government had an open consultation, and one of the things that’s been up for debate is the price promotions in supermarkets. “We have more than other European countries,” notes Anna. Sponsoring deals have also come under the spotlight.


Unfortunately, teachers can only do so much. However, Anna points out that Scotland can take the lead from countries like the Netherlands who are getting it right.

“In Amsterdam, there is a programme in primary schools called ‘jump in’,” says Anna. Teachers not only tell kids about what kind of diet makes a healthy lifestyle, but junk food is banned from school, only water and milk is drunk at breaks, and only healthy sandwiches can be found at lunch. No crisps, sweets or fizzy drinks can cross the threshold. While it may sound extreme, hopefully pupils will get a taste for healthy food while at school and it will cross over to home time.

“Teachers can lead by example – that’s often how children learn,” says Anna. If teachers sit with their pupils at lunch and eat healthy food, it becomes normal. While this put the impetus on the teachers to be a role model and possibly change their own eating habits, it’s important to do. After all, you wouldn’t drink a glass of wine in front of a pupil, so perhaps it’s time to apply that thinking to your lunchtime Pot Noodle and Lucozade. Your body will thank you for it.

The Daily Mile is another good idea, and one that is already being implemented in Scottish schools. It aims to improve the physical, social, emotional, mental health and wellbeing of pupils by taking them on a mile-long walk or run every day. While the weather isn’t always the best, why not take the pupils outside for 20 minutes? Daily exercise is not just good for you physically, it also helps pupils concentrate on their lessons.

There are other things like extra measurements of height and weight that can be done, although it’s important to do it in a sensitive manner as eating disorders are on the rise.

“It’s shocking how many kids are worried about their weight,” says Anna. There is a stigma around being fat and it can lead to bullying. “It’s not easy for kids,” she says. It can be hard for teachers, too, but real change has to happen in order for the students to live long and happy lives.

Info: Sugar Tax

It’s sugar that leads to obesity and not fat (although that might seem confusing). The problem with sugar is that it’s addictive and has been cheap, although the sugar tax is addressing that issue. Addiction to sugar is a real problem, and difficult to break out of. Many manufacturers, like Irn Bru, responded to the sugar tax by changing recipes, but Coca Cola just pays the tax and the sugar levels remain the same.