Child obesity 'has peaked'

Jeremy Laurance
Tuesday 03 November 2009 01:00

The 30-year rise in child obesity may have peaked, researchers report. The increase in overweight and obesity among children which has continued without pause since the mid-1970s is now on a downward trajectory, according to latest figures.

The forecast number of overweight girls aged 2 to 11 in 2020 has dropped from 34 per cent to 17 per cent, and the proportion of obese girls from 14 per cent to 10 per cent.

Among boys, the forecast number of overweight is down from 22 per cent to 17 per cent, and for the obese it is down from 20 per cent to 13 per cent.

The pounds are also slipping off teenagers. Among 12 to 19 year olds, the forecast number of obese girls in 2020 is down from 30 per cent to 9 per cent and obese boys are down from 25 per cent to 18 per cent. There are similar falls in overweight teenagers.

The revised forecasts, by researchers from the University of Oxford led by Professor Klim Mcpherson, are based on the annual health survey for 2007, one of the most comprehensive health surveys in the world. The original forecasts, made by the same team, were based on the 2004 health survey and published as part of the Foresight report on obesity in 2007, which called for changes to the environment, to reduce calorie consumption and increase activity to curb expanding waistlines.

Tim Marsh, associate director of the National Heart Forum, and a member of the research team, said the findings were good news. “This is the first indicator of a positive change in the [upward] trend [in child obesity]. It is certainly not going up as much as we said in the Foresight report two years ago. It is positive - how positive only time will tell.”

It was essential to curb overweight and obesity in childhood because, once gained, weight was much harder to lose later on.

Dr Marsh said the study could not answer why obesity was falling but there were a number of factors that could be responsible.

“We think it is a combination of changing attitudes - obesity is now recognised to be a serious health problem - and changes in government policy. A significant amount has happened since 2004.”

Traffic light food labelling to help parents choose healthier foods, the Sure Start scheme to give new parents support and improved breast feeding rates, which reduces the risk of obesity in later life, may all have contributed, he said.

Chance fluctuations in the figures from year to year could account for some, but not all, of the change, he said. “As the change is so great, it is unlikley to be due solely to changes in the data,” he said.

Professor Klim McPherson said that although the figures presented a “more postive picture” of obesity, they were still worrying.

“The prevalence, and current trends, of excess weight are still unacceptably high and these figures should not be taken as an argument for complacency. The Government needs to keep up the work they are doing to tackle obesity.”

Gillian Merron, public health minister, said 1.5 million children and 25 million adults in Britain were overweight or obese.

“Obesity is one of the biggest health challenges we face. The encouraging news that child obesity may be levelling off is thanks to the hard work of families, schools and the NHS across England. But obesity levels are still too high and we need to keep the momentum going.”

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