“IT'S SCANDALOUS that we’re living in a country where so many very young children are carrying too much weight, and that the problem in Wales is worse than anywhere else in Britain."

Those are the words of Cancer Research UK's public affairs manager in Wales, Andy Glyde.

He pulled no punches when asked about statistics released this week that highlighted the shocking the number of Welsh children enterng school gates for the first time in their young lives already burdened by obesity.

More than 1,000 four and five-year-olds in Wales, 3.3 per cent of the total, were severely obese in 2017/18, up from 2.7 per cent five years ago, they figures showed.

Taking obesity as a whole, 12 per cent of four-and five-year-olds in Wales fall into that category, with more than a quarter - 26.4 per cent - of all children of these ages now overweight or obese.

The figures are in the latest Wales' Child Measurement Programme report, published annually for several years but which for the first time presents information on severe obesity in children.

Levels of overweight and obesity among the young have been a cause for concern for some time, with rising numbers nothing new - but the focus on severe obesity in those of such tender ages is rightly heightening concern and calls for action.

Mr Glyde added: “The shocking truth is that carrying too much weight has stark consequences.

"It’s responsible for around 1,000 cases of cancer in Wales every year, including bowel, breast and kidney. An obese child is around five times more likely to be an obese adult.

“It couldn’t be clearer why Wales needs a trailblazing obesity strategy to protect children from the harm caused by junk food, and it’s welcome that the Welsh Government is consulting on how best to do this.

“By reforming rules to prevent new fast food outlets from opening near schools, the Welsh Government can make a positive change to the health of our children and of the nation.

“We know there’s a link between hot food takeaways near schools and increased likelihood of obesity so bold measures to deter teenagers from takeaway temptation could make a big difference.”

The obesity strategy to which Mr Glyde refers is Healthy Weight - Healthy Wales, and a consultation event will be held at the Riverfront in Newport next week to stimulate debate and ideas on how to tackle what is now acknowledged as one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st Century.

It has developed over many years, and needs a concerted effort - by many sectors working together - to turn around. Crucially, it will require Welsh Government-level heft to help build on work done locally, for instance in terms of increasing physical activity among children.

Healthy Weight - Healthy Wales proposes support for parents and families, a focus on the first 1,000 days of life, and early years, with a range of measures to cut obesity. Proposals include: Regulation of price promotions on foods; calorie labelling on foods eaten out of the home; a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children; limiting the use of advertising and promotion of unhealthy foods in public places, such as at bus stops, and at sporting events.

"I think we've made some progress with the physical activity issue in Gwent, but things about diet need a Welsh Government focus," said Dr Sarah Aitken, director of public health at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board.

"A whole systems approach is critical. Historically, we have done a bit of this work in one place, and a bit of that work in another, but it needs a joined-up and sustained approach."

While it is vital that help and support is available for obese adults, a focus on the young, as part of the 'future generations' approach being pursued in Wales, is key to beginning to tackle the obesity problem.

"What works is enabling children to take a healthy weight into adult life and keeping it, which is much easier than taking weight off when older, and keeping it off," said Dr Aitken.

That, she added, starts at birth, with approaches such as breastfeeding and weaning onto water, rather than sugary drinks, at a period when tastes are formed, with what families eat also being key.

A whole systems approach includes an element of personal responsibility in how we look after and feed ourselves and our children, but Dr Aitken said factors such as affordability of healthier food for many families, and proximity of fast food outlets can mean making the right choices is difficult.

"Convenience is often high fat, high sugar," she said.

"An element of personal responsibility is involved but with the diet aspect, it is quite hard for many people to do the right thing."

Physical activity is a key weapon in the battle against obesity, and a number of initiatives are proving popular in Gwent primary schools.

More than 70 have adopted the Daily Mile programme for pupils, to ensure they are walking such a distance on a daily basis.

At Cwm primary school, in Blaenau Gwent - a county borough where 12.8 per cent of four- and five-year-olds were measured as obese in 2017/18 - physical activity is woven into the daily school calendar.

The school runs a community walking group - to resume next week after a winter break - with pupils, parents and teachers taking after school walks in the surrounding countryside.

Themed walks based on nature, a litter pick, and a lap of the nearby Festival Park lake, were part of the programme earlier in the school year, and pupils also take part in 15-minute fitness sessions every day.

"Our mission statement is for this to be a happy, health school. The children helped to draw that up, eight years ago, and fitness comes into that so much," said head teacher Rhian Astley.

"We've seen improvements in their concentration and willingness to work, and fitness - and by counting the numbers of steps they take, maths skills have improved.

"We started the walking group because we wanted to do something for the community, and people love it.

"We had a walking group sports day last summer for parents, children and teachers, and that was great fun.

"We also have regular PACT (Parents and Children Together) sessions on staying healthy.

"The initiative is called Engaging the Community through Staying Fit and Keeping Healthy, and it is vital children have that positive message early on."

The South East Wales launch of the consultation on the Welsh Government's Healthy Weight - Healthy Wales strategy takes place at the Riverfront, Newport, on Tuesday March 12, 6.30pm-8.30pm. To register for the free event, use the Eventbrite link at http://www.wales.nhs.uk/sitesplus/866/news/50559