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A critique of the English national policy from a social determinants of health perspective using a realist and problem representation approach: the ‘Childhood Obesity: a plan for action’ (2016, 2018, 2019)

Griffin, Naomi and Phillips, Sophie M. and Hillier‑Brown, Frances and Wistow, Jonathan and Fairbrother, Hannah and Holding, Eleanor and Powell, Katie and Summerbell, Carolyn (2021) 'A critique of the English national policy from a social determinants of health perspective using a realist and problem representation approach: the ‘Childhood Obesity: a plan for action’ (2016, 2018, 2019).', BMC Public Health, 21 . p. 2284.


Background: The UK government released Chapter 1 of the ‘Childhood Obesity: a plan for action’ (2016), followed by Chapter 2 (2018) and preliminary Chapter 3 was published for consultation in 2019 (hereon collectively ‘The Policy’). The stated policy aims were to reduce the prevalence of childhood obesity in England, addressing disparities in health by reducing the gap (approximately two-fold) in childhood obesity between those from the most and least deprived areas. Methods: Combining a realist approach with an analysis of policy discourses, we analysed the policies using a social determinants of health (SDH) perspective (focusing on socio-economic inequalities). This novel approach reveals how the framing of policy ‘problems’ leads to particular approaches and interventions. Results: While recognising a social gradient in relation to obesity measures, we critique obesity problem narratives. The Policy included some upstream, structural approaches (e.g. restrictions in food advertising and the soft-drinks industry levy). However, the focus on downstream individual-level behavioural approaches to reduce calorie intake and increase physical activity does not account for the SDH and the complexity and contestedness of ‘obesity’ and pays insufficient attention to how proposals will help to reduce inequalities. Our findings illustrate that individualising of responsibility to respond to what wider evidence shows is structural inequalities, can perpetuate damaging narratives and lead to ineffective interventions, providing caution to academics, practitioners and policy makers (local and national), of the power of problem representation. Our findings also show that the problem framing in The Policy risks reducing important public health aims to encourage healthy diets and increase opportunities for physical activity (and the physical and mental health benefits of both) for children to weight management with a focus on particular children. Conclusions: We propose an alternative conceptualisation of the policy ‘problem’, that obesity rates are illustrative of inequality, arguing there needs to be policy focus on the structural and factors that maintain health inequalities, including poverty and food insecurity. We hope that our findings can be used to challenge and strengthen future policy development, leading to more effective action against health inequalities and intervention-generated inequalities in health.

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Publisher statement:Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver ( applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.
Date accepted:29 November 2021
Date deposited:15 December 2021
Date of first online publication:14 December 2021
Date first made open access:15 December 2021

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