Rising obesity rates could see children suffer heart attacks

Heart attacks could become a common childhood complaint because of the soaring levels of obesity among youngsters worldwide, doctors warn today.

The number of dangerously overweight children has risen because of over-eating, fast-food diets and the tendency for youngsters to spend hours watching television. Researchers in the United States are now calling for controversial measures such as a tax on fast food and soft drinks, and a ban on food advertisements aimed at children.

Doctors at the Boston Children's Hospital in Massachusetts say children as young as five are now displaying early signs of cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure and thickened arteries. The emergence of type-2 diabetes among teenagers was also an "ominous development" because of the associated risk of heart disease, strokes and limb amputation.

Dr David Ludwig, the lead author of a report published today in The Lancet, warns that heart attacks, which have been rare before middle age, could soon affect obese children. "The increasing prevalence and severity of obesity in children, together with its most serious complication, type-2 diabetes, raise the spectre of myocardial infarction becoming a paediatric disease."

Obesity rates among young Britons have almost trebled in the past decade, with 2.6 per cent of girls and 1.7 per cent of boys now classed as dangerously overweight. In America, 3.3 per cent of children under 11 are obese.

Dr Ludwig says obesity is now arguably the "primary childhood health problem" in developed nations. But he says the epidemic must be blamed largely on lifestyle factors, rather than genetic change.

In America, children are inactive for 75 per cent of their waking hours, with only 12 minutes a day spent on vigorous activity. Those doing the least exercise and watching the most television tend to be the most overweight.

Television viewing not only results in inactivity but children also "passively consume excessive amounts of energy-dense foods" while in front of the screen. British and American youngsters are exposed to about 10 food adverts per hour of television time – mostly for fast food, soft drinks, sweets and sugary cereals. Children are also less likely nowadays to sit down to family dinners with a good nutritional balance and more fruit and vegetables, the report says.

Despite the huge increase in childhood obesity, Dr Ludwig says that treatment remains largely ineffective. Counselling families on diet and exercise, and school-based campaigns have usually had only limited effects. Slimming drugs often have dangerous side-effects and surgery must be seen as a last resort.

Instead, Dr Ludwig calls for radical measures, which he warns will "require substantial political will and financial investment". A tax on fast food and soft drinks should be considered, as well as subsidies on fruit and vegetables, a ban on food advertisements and marketing aimed at children, and nutrition labels on fast-food packaging.

Dr Ludwig also calls for more public health campaigns, stricter standards for school lunches and a ban on vending machines in schools that sell soft drink and sweets.

Professor Alan Johnson, president of the British Obesity Surgery Society, agreed with the approach. He said: "We have now got a huge group of children who are going to become very fat adults. The NHS has to take it very seriously."

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