Fat and fiction

A new study finds that claims of a childhood obesity epidemic in the UK have been hugely overblown.

Peter Marsh

Topics Politics

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All the recent claims of an obesity ‘epidemic’ in Britain are not supported by the evidence.

The belief that childhood obesity is at epidemic levels and is rising exponentially are no more than unsupported speculation, according to recent data from the annual Health Survey for England 2003, published by the Department of Health on 14 December 2004, and analysed by the Oxford-based Social Issues Research Centre.

The new analysis shows that:

— Body Mass Index (BMI) trends have been broadly flat for both boys and girls aged under 16 in the period 1995 to 2003, with very modest increases in average BMI of around 0.5 for boys and 0.6 for girls.

— The UK National Standard for assessing child obesity used by the government’s recent Public Health White Paper overstates the scale of the child obesity problem – 15.5 per cent obese – compared with the less arbitrary International Standard – 6.75 per cent obese.

— Although the rates of increase of obesity under both measures are broadly similar (60 to 70 per cent), the difference between the numbers of children defined as obese is likely to have a significant impact on the appropriateness and scale of the measures to tackle the problem of obesity.

— There is no indication of any significant change in the number of children with chronic illnesses, including type II diabetes, over the past nine years. The absence of any evident deterioration in the health status of children supports the conclusion that children are not becoming fatter as fast as is widely believed.

— The prevalence of obesity is strongly related to age. The 16 to 24 year age group – both males and females – is substantially less at risk of becoming obese than older age groups, and the incidence of obesity for males in this age range has declined very slightly in recent years. Those aged between 25 and 34 have the second lowest rates of obesity. Middle-aged people and those of retirement age are the most ‘at-risk’ groups.

— More young men and women in the 16 to 24 year age group have a ‘desirable’ BMI of between 20 and 25 than any other BMI category. Men of this age are twice as likely to be underweight as they are to be obese.

As the report concludes: ‘We do no service to the people at risk of obesity-related morbidities in our society by “hyping” their plight, exaggerating their numbers or diverting limited educational, medical and financial resources away from where the problems really lie.

‘Banning advertising of “junk food” to children and similar measures may be popular in some quarters, but they are unlikely to impact much on the generation of people in their 50s and 60s – those with vastly higher rates of overweight and obesity than children and young people.

‘The Health Survey for England provides grounds for a serious re-think.’

Peter Marsh is director of the Social Issues Research Centre. He is speaking on obesity at the spiked-conference Whose Choice is it Anyway? on Friday 11 March 2005. The full SIRC report, Obesity and the Facts, is available to download as a pdf here.

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Topics Politics


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