Teaching parents how to say 'No' to help cut obesity among children

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Damon Green

Obesity rates among five-year-olds in one English city have fallen thanks to a groundbreaking scheme that teaches parents how better to say "No" to their children.

An eight-week course educates parents in more subtle ways to get youngsters to take healthier options - and not just at meal times.

Some 6,000 families in Leeds have been given the lessons, which costs councils £50 per family, with 625 children a year "saved" from obesity.

The programme is aimed particularly at poorer areas.

More than 6 in 10 adults in the UK are overweight or obese. Credit: PA

What will parents expect to learn?

Run under the name of Henry - Health Exercise Nutrition for the Really Young - the programme is all about trying to show parents the difference between "authoritarian" parenting and "authoritative".

So, it's not about simply saying "you will eat your greens and you're not leaving the table until your plate is empty" but more about asking whether they'd like carrots or broccoli with their fish fingers.

The course helps parents to make meal times less confrontational, more relaxed - and, hopefully, children will respond by eating a more varied and healthy diet.

But it's not just about diet, there's also a focus on becoming more active as a family, becoming less reliant on TV and computer games as a parenting crutch and developing simple games to get them away from the TV, for example.

One of the practical suggestions is an indoor obstacle course. Credit: Henry

Some Do's and Don'ts:

  • Don't ask your child: "What do you want to eat?"

  • Do ask: "Would you like broccoli or carrots with your dinner?"

  • Do let you kids eat at their own pace, rather than rushing them to finish.

  • Don’t force them to finish everything on their plate – by encouraging them to know when they’re full, you can help them not overeat later in life

  • Do try getting into a regular routine of sitting down together for meals away from distractions such as TV, toys and phones.

  • Don’t worry about where – at a table, picnic-style on the floor or wherever works for your family.

  • Don't say to your child: "Thank you for clearing away your toys, have a chocolate."

  • Do say: "Thank you for clearing away your toys, would you like a banana or an apple?"

  • Don't say to your child: "Switch off the television."

  • Do say: "Shall I switch off the television or would you like to?"

  • Don't say: "Are you ready for bed?"

  • Do say: "It's bedtime – where do you want to read your bedtime story?"

  • Do praise children for trying new food, even if they don’t eat very much.

  • Don’t use sweets and puddings as a reward.

Encouraging children to choose a healthy option is part of the battle. Credit: PA

What's been the impact of Henry?

According to research carried out by the University of Oxford, rates of obesity in five-year-olds in Leeds dropped from 9.4% to 8.8% between 2013-14 and 2016-17, while remaining unchanged in England as a whole at around 9.4% over the same period.

And in the most deprived areas of the city, obesity rates among children dropped from 11.5% to 10.5%.

Some 9,675 children aged 4-5 were measured in Leeds in 2016/17, and the drop in obesity equates to over 600 fewer children being obese in the most recent school year for which statistics were available.

One in three children leaves primary school overweight or obese and the number of children classed as seriously obese is at a record high, according the Department of Health and Social Care.

The department has called the current situation in the UK a "rising epidemic in childhood obesity".

What do the experts think?

Professor Susan Jebb, of Oxford University and the Government's former obesity tsar, told ITV News most people know that cakes and biscuits aren't really healthy and that fruit and vegetables are.

"Just educating people often just hasn't been enough," she said.

"What they've succeeded in doing in Leeds by using this very supportive approach and working with families, giving them practical skills and helping them to enact those parenting practices which are going to lead to healthier lifestyles."

She said Amsterdam and a couple of cities in the US had seen similar results from similar programmes and that the Henry scheme could be rolled out across the country, depending on further research.