Childhood obesity epidemic may be 'levelling out,' claims new study

Between 2004 and 2013, the number of overweight and obese children increased by only 0.4 per cent each year

The epidemic of childhood obesity may be “levelling out” according to a new study, which suggests the waistlines of English children have been expanding much more slowly over the past decade than during the 1990s.

An analysis of data on children’s weight gathered from GP practices found that more than a third of children aged between 2 and 15 are obese or overweight. 

However, between 2004 and 2013, the number of overweight and obese children increased by only 0.4 per cent each year.

By contrast, rates increased by an average 8 per cent each year between 1994 and 2003.

The researchers behind the study, from King’s College London, said that while the slowdown might be evidence that public health campaigns are working, it was also possible that rates of overweight and obesity have reached “a point of saturation”.

However experts said it that the “stabilisation” of obesity rates should not be a cue for complacency.

Professor Julian Hamilton Shield, of the University of Bristol’s Biomedical Research Unit in Nutrition, and Professor Debbie Sharp, an expert in primary care, said that “the childhood obesity crisis” was “far from over”.

Writing in response to the latest study, which is published in the online journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, they said the implications of such high levels of obesity were “profound”, with increasing rates of type 2 diabetes, liver disease, sleep apnoea, asthma, high blood pressure and even psychological disturbance likely in the generation currently growing up.

The King’s College study found that the highest rates of overweight or obesity were among 11 to 15 year olds. Prevalence in this group has risen from 26.7 per cent in 1996, to 37.8 per cent in 2013, according to their findings.

Dr Colin Michie, chair of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s Nutrition Committee, said it was no surprise that rates were high among young people at an age when they are “beginning to find their independence.”

“Unfortunately, it is also this age group who are likely to be easily influenced by the world around them, through advertising and access to pocket money priced fast food,” he said.

“If we are to make inroads we need to create a healthy environment by ensuring that children are not exposed to junk food advertising before the 9pm watershed, licences for fast food restaurants are not granted to restaurants close to schools or colleges, a taxation on foods high in salt, sugar and fat is explored and young people are taught how to cook healthy meals in school much earlier,” he added.

Eustace de Sousa, national lead for children, young people and families at Public Health England, said: “Overall childhood obesity rates have remained stable since 2010 however for children from the poorest households levels have continued to worsen so there is no room for complacency…. Obese children are more likely to experience bullying, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and have a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes and heart disease in later life.”

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