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Childhood obesity

Childhood obesity shows signs of stabilising in England

Credit: Walter Siegmund
The analysis showed that between 1994 and 2003 the prevalence of overweight and obesity in all children increased by just over 8% each year, but the rate slowed substantially between 2004 and 2013 to 0.4% a year

More than a third of children in England are overweight or obese according to the finding of a 20 year study published in Archives of Disease in Childhood. However, the report does indicate that the rapid rise in prevalence may be starting to level off, at least in younger children.

"There are several possible theories for the recent stabilisation of childhood overweight and obesity rates," write the researchers. "One explanation may be that rates have reached a point of saturation."

Researchers from King’s College London, UK, used data from 375 general practices in England that contribute to the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink primary care electronic health records to evaluate the prevalence of overweight and obesity in 2-15-year-old children in England and compare trends over the last two decades.

The analysis showed that between 1994 and 2003 the prevalence of overweight and obesity in all children increased by just over 8% each year, but the rate slowed substantially between 2004 and 2013 to 0.4% a year, suggesting that it may have levelled off, say the researchers. Trends were similar for both boys and girls, but differed by age group.

Among the boys, the prevalence of overweight/obesity among 2-5 year olds ranged from around one in five (19.5%) in 1995 to one in four (26%) in 2007. Among 6-10 year olds, prevalence ranged from 22.6% in 1994 to 33% in 2011.

The highest figures were seen in 11-15 year olds, among whom the prevalence of overweight/obesity ranged from around one in four (26.7%) in 1996 to almost four out of 10 (37.8%) in 2013.

These patterns were similar among girls. The prevalence ranged from 18.3% in 1995 to 24.4% in 2008 among the youngest, and from 22.5% in 1996 to 32.2% in 2005 among 6-10 year olds.

The highest rates were among 11-15 year olds, ranging from 28.3% in 1995 to 36.7% in 2004 and 2012.

Figure 1: Prevalence of overweight and obesity by study year and age group in boys and girls. Copyright © BMJ Publishing Group Ltd & Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. All rights reserved. van Jaarsveld C H M , and Gulliford M C Arch Dis Child doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-307151

Overall, the increase in rates of overweight/obesity was significant for all age groups in the first decade of the study, but it was only significant in the second decade for 11-15 year olds. Rates among this age group continued to rise in the second decade, albeit more slowly than in the first.

“Primary care electronic health records in England may provide a valuable resource for monitoring obesity trends and may be used to supplement existing surveillance systems…Increasing the recognition of obesity in primary care, and the effectiveness of interventions delivered through primary care services, represents one important component of the overall policy response,” the authors conclude.

In a linked editorial, Professor Julian Hamilton-Shield and Dr Debbie Sharpe, from the University of Bristol, point out that the implications for such levels of teen obesity are "profound" in terms of current and future health.

They go on to say that many of the techniques used by local authorities in England, who have assumed responsibility for obesity as part of their public health remit, are not based on strong evidence, and there is little in the way of outcomes data to determine how successful they are.

Furthermore, many parents and clinicians remain to be convinced that childhood obesity is a serious enough health concern, they say, suggesting that it may be time to revisit the idea of implementing a 'fat tax.'

"Thus far, we simply do not seem to have the tools to manage this problem effectively," the editorial states. "The childhood obesity crisis in England is far from over, and our current weapons in the war against fat seem unlikely to provide the answer. The recent call to the chief medical officer to develop a 'child obesity action group' may prove a first step in what is likely to be a very long campaign."

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