Halting the childhood obesity epidemic

Ms Alexandra Chung is a visiting academic at Deakin’s Institute for Health Transformation. Alexandra’s research aim is to reduce socioeconomic inequalities in childhood obesity.

Written by Chantelle Gourlay

Alex was recently invited to attend an international meeting of childhood obesity experts, jointly hosted by Salzburg Global Seminar and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, held at the beautiful Schloss Leopoldskon in Salzburg, Austria.

“The program I participated in was titled ‘Halting the Childhood Obesity Epidemic, Identifying Decisive Interventions in Complex Systems.’” Said Ms Chung.

The Salzburg Global Seminar runs programs throughout the year and there are a number of critical issues that are brought to attention. The Seminar brings together current and future leaders in their respective fields to inspire new thinking, catalyse action, and foster networks for sustainable change.

The week-long program began with a number of presentations and panel discussions between participants. Towards the end of the week, the focus shifted to working together. Participants formed small groups to advance the thinking on some of the topics discussed, making plans for new networks and initiatives to follow on from the seminar.

“My group looked at how we can take the current research around childhood obesity prevention and use this to advocate for action. There is good evidence for policies and strategies that would lead to equitable improvements in childhood obesity. What is needed is coordinated, government-led action.”

Ms Chung explained that her group wanted to answer the question “what can we do with the solutions we already have?” and hopes that their work will now be taken on by the World Obesity Federation.

“One of the members in our working group works for the World Obesity Federation. We are currently exploring ways to work with the Federation to advance the ideas raised by our group”.
A number of interesting and important themes were raised during the seminar.

The need to understand the experience of vulnerable populations was discussed at length. The impact of colonisation on First Nations people in Australia and New Zealand and the ongoing impact of trauma resulting from loss of land and culture was a common thread to these moving discussions.

“History cannot be ignored. Solutions must be developed in partnership with local communities. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution.”

In terms of understanding individual experiences, there was a focus on keeping children and families at the centre of obesity prevention efforts, whilst also recognising the broader determinants of health.

“Childhood obesity needs to be tackled with a systems approach. We need to redesign the system to ensure all children thrive.” Said Ms Chung.

Examples of local-level systems work were shared by participants from Amsterdam and London. This highlighted the unique opportunity that cities have to engage local stakeholders and create systems that support good health for their citizens.

Childhood obesity systems are complex and successful solutions will need to have multiple benefits. Ms Chung explains “We ought to aim for mutual benefit in everything we do. We need to think about how we can tackle childhood obesity by ensuring stakeholders see the benefits of being involved.

Engaging stakeholders by stealth was a novel concept proposed by one participant. This led to the development of a working group, that, using the Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change as their focus, raised the idea of using action on climate change as a ‘stealth initiative’ to improve population diets.

It is clear that we need a range of actions to address childhood obesity. The ideas raised during the seminar were diverse and represented important aspects of the problem and potential solutions. This diversity of thought is unsurprising given the Seminar brings together participants from all around the globe.

Throughout the week, the group lived together at Schloss Leopoldskron, enabling informal conversations over meals and casual chats during walks through Salzburg’s Christmas markets. Ms Chung believed this was a perfect complement to the more robust discussions during the formal presentations and working group sessions.

“I am so thankful for the opportunity to attend the Salzburg Global Seminar. It was truly an incredible experience. I have met extraordinary people, made wonderful friends, and learnt so much about how we can use existing knowledge and novel ideas to work together to halt the childhood obesity epidemic.”

Note Alexandra Chung is a visiting academic at Deakin University and a PhD candidate at Monash University. Alexandra’s PhD is being supervised by Professor Anna Peeters, the Director of the Institute for Health Transformation and Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer, Associate Director of the Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE).