Page last updated at 11:09 GMT, Tuesday, 11 November 2008

'Healthy town' tackles obesity

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

fast food restaurants
A health award scheme will target Tower Hamlets' fast food restaurants

Tower Hamlets in London has been selected for transformation into one of Britain's nine "healthy towns".

But what does this mean for the residents of the UK's third most deprived borough?

With below average life expectancy, low exercise rates and unhealthy eating habits, Tower Hamlets is at the heart of what the local primary care trust calls an "obesity epidemic".

So the award of 4.7m in government cash to tackle the problem, plus a further 6m in local funds, has been widely welcomed.

The aim is to turn the borough into a "healthy town" where people will find it easier to exercise and choose healthy food.

The plans include extending walking and cycling routes, food co-operatives and moves to limit the harmful effects of fast food outlets through planning and incentives.

A healthy food award scheme will target fast food shops, restaurants and cafes along the route of the 2012 Olympic Park in the high street.

How can you let nine fried chicken shops open in the space of 200 yards? There's something wrong there
Angelo Mascia
Cafe owner

Among the incentives being considered are free nutritional advice, official recognition of restaurants as healthy food outlets and free business advice and advertising.

But will it work?

Angelo and Joe Mascia have been selling home-cooked meals from their family cafe, Mr G's, on Mile End Road for 30 years.

Over the years they say they have seen children getting fatter.

They blame lifestyles, the lack of choice and concentration of fast food restaurants.

"Tower Hamlets is the worst borough going for planning," said Angelo.

"How can you let nine fried chicken shops open in the space of 200 yards? There's something wrong there.

"They should start with the fast food shops, they're the ones to target."

Musthak Ahmed
Fast food is harming the community, says father-of-three Musthak Ahmed

Joe added: "For most people it's the lifestyle. They haven't got the time, and most haven't even got the ability to cook anymore.

"We don't really have to offer or bribe our customers to eat healthily, we've got vegetables and salad and already offer that sort of food."

Sidoul Islam, assistant manager of neighbouring fast food restaurant Real Taste, said he would be happy to sign up to a healthy food scheme.

"We did once try to sell healthier sandwiches but it didn't work out, so we went back to fried food," he said.

"Most likely kids wouldn't buy vegetables. They need to be educated at school about it from year two or three, or nursery if they can."

At 232,000, the UK's fifth most densely populated borough
The UK's third most deprived borough
15% of children aged four to five obese - third highest in England
23% of children aged 10 to 11 obese - above national average
42m estimated cost to NHS for obesity-related diseases
Source: Department of Health

Father-of-three Musthak Ahmed said he used to eat fried chicken three or four times a week but has now cut down to once a month.

The National Health Service worker said: "There's definitely a problem with obesity in this area and one of the main causes is eating fast food. It's very unhealthy.

"I'd like the council to put some restrictions on the sort of food the fast food restaurants can provide."

Tower Hamlets council says the funding is "fantastic news" and gives the borough a "real chance" of turning its fortunes around.

Department of Health figures show 15% of borough children aged 10 to 15 ate five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day compared to a 23% national average.

Children also did less exercise, with 28% being active for 30 minutes a day for six or more days compared to a 38% national average.

The borough's joint director of public health, Dr Ian Basnett, said: "People often find it difficult to take exercise as part of their daily lives and eat a healthy diet, so levels of obesity, particularly in children, are very high.

A food co-operative in Tower Hamlets
Healthy food co-operatives aim to cut obesity and diet-related illnesses

"This will mean more people suffer from diabetes, heart disease, strokes and cancers in the future."

The council plans to extend its cycle routes with two miles of well signed and lit paths, introduce a "bike to school" scheme and train children to cycle to get them exercising.

Library supervisor Jusnara Khanam, 28, said: "I'd like to see more cycle routes. It's a fun way of exercising.

"It would encourage me to get on a bike, but the routes would have to be well lit or I wouldn't feel safe."

Other schemes planned by the council include food co-operatives where affordable fruit and vegetables are provided for residents who do not have ready access to fresh food shops.

But for local resident Jan Jaap, 25, from Bethnal Green, getting to grips with obesity means addressing a more fundamental problem.

"It's more about education and serving healthy food in school," he said.

"It should come from the parents and not the council - but a lot of parents don't educate their kids properly."

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