Childhood obesity is a significant issue worldwide, with 39 million children under 5 years classed as overweight or obese in 2020. In England, over a fifth of children aged 4–5 years and over a third of children aged 10–11 years, were classed as overweight or obese in 2021/22. Children who are obese are at five times higher risk of remaining obese into adulthood, and obesity is a driver of health inequalities over a lifetime.
Poverty, social inequality and poor diet quality are all linked with childhood obesity in the UK. The number of children living in relative child poverty in the UK has increased from 27% of children in 2013–2014, to 31% in 2019–2020.
To look at these connected issues and to find possible solutions researchers began a project called The Wessex FRIEND Toolbox (Family Risk IdEntificatioN and Decision).
The team from the University of Southampton worked with Solent NHS Trust, Southampton City Council, Portsmouth City Council, Hampshire County Council, Health Education England, Oxford Brookes University.
They tested a digital tool called SLOPE CORE which predicts if preschool children are likely to be overweight by the time they start school.
Health visitors and parents found the obesity prediction tool quick and easy to use. Using the tool provided the opportunity to promote healthy living advice and help with difficult conversations about diet by giving an objective result and removing the perception of judgement.
Health visitors felt that, when using the tool, a healthcare professional should have sufficient time to have a sensitive discussion and explain a conceptually difficult concept (risk).
Health Visitor: I've used it twice now and I found it really, really simple to use…. I'd forgotten how quick it was to use. It was done obviously with the parent there and it was just I just, I just found it really simple and straightforward and useful
Parents felt that the tool provides an opportunity for behaviour change and potential to improve health for the child but can also provide reassurance. They appreciated the additional resources and support with the results. However, before using the tool a healthcare professional should consider whether the tool is appropriate, as it may be unsuitable for some parents.
Parent: It was quite easy to use to be honest. It was really, it was really good.
The team then refined and tailored area-based child poverty, food poverty and greenspace access measures to the regional context and population. These provide improved tools for better planning and targeting of services by the local councils. These area-based measures are combined with the individual childhood obesity estimation provided by the SLOPE CORE Tool on one platform, which can be utilised by frontline professionals dealing with disadvantaged families.
If you would like to know more about the project and what it found you can see a full report on the project web page
Download a summary report below