THE BLOG

The Dual Fuelling of Britain's Childhood Obesity

07/05/2015 14:26 BST | Updated 07/05/2016 10:59 BST

As a nation we are undoubtedly getting fatter and obesity levels have tripled since the 1980s. But what does the future have in store for our children and is their fate already sealed?

If trends continue, by 2050 more than half the population will be obese. In theory, that means the majority of today's pre-schoolers could find themselves battling with obesity by their 30s. A worrying proportion of children are already showing signs - around one in six (16 per cent) according to official statistics.

There has been much debate about what's fuelling the issue, but new academic research published in the International Journal of Obesity last week, suggested two distinct phases of influence linked to children who become overweight - their parents and their peers.

Does obesity start at home?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the research, which was led by the University of Exeter's Medical School, found that the parental effect is a major factor.

Comparing data from three decades ago with a study of modern day children, it revealed that the rise in obesity in toddlers was mainly limited to those with obese parents. However, by the time they hit adolescence, other factors clearly come in to play too.

Overweight parents don't necessarily have overweight teens - and vice versa. Like so many aspects of life - as children grow up they face all manner of other influences beyond the family home. When children start to gain their independence, parents tend to have less influence on their diet - and they can be swayed by what their friends and peers are doing.

Recognising the problem

For an adult, a body mass index (BMI) of 30 would put you on the 'obese' scale. Your BMI is calculated based on weight, height, age and gender - and is meant to be an indication of whether or not you are a healthy weight. It isn't an exact science, and it will depend on factors such as muscle mass and waist size too.

Patients can be very surprised to discover they are clinically obese or overweight and are putting themselves at risk of associated health problems. This distortion in perception of weight problems extends to parents with overweight children too.

A recent research paper published by the British Journal of General Practice found that parents often underestimate their child's weight status - many are not aware of the extent to which they exceeded the healthy weight for their age.

Tackling our future health crisis now

Obesity brings with it a number of health risks. You're at least five times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes and twice as likely to have high blood pressure - the risk is significantly higher for women. Obesity also puts you at higher risk of a stroke, heart attack and possibly some forms of cancer. None of which we'd wish for our children, or indeed ourselves.

Tackling obesity and weight problems in the present adult generation is therefore crucial. Around one in four British adults is obese and it is predicted that within the next 10 years this could rise to 47% of men and 36 per cent of women aged 21 to 60.

Medication to treat obesity costs the NHS more than £500,000 a year. This cost rose 44% in 2013 - and it is thought this increase could partly be due to the previous shortage of Orlistat, which is one of the commonly used prescription weight-loss drugs for adults.

A healthy message for the next generation

It is important for families to embed healthier lifestyle choices when children are young, but as a society we need greater awareness of the risks of obesity.

Teenagers often live in the 'here and now' and rarely think about the long-term consequences of their actions - hitting 30 seems a lifetime away. Like so many things, the implications of what they eat and how active they are has not yet hit home.

So how can we get this important message to our teenagers? Health campaigns, perhaps via social media, can be a good route and we certainly shouldn't forget the power of a positive role model.

The media and celebrities are hugely influential for the young - portraying healthy body image and lifestyle is crucial. But the emphasis really does need to be on healthy - not underweight.

Maintaining a healthy weight is largely dependent on striking the right balance between what you eat and keeping active. Together it's important we help the next generation avoid a new obesity epidemic before it starts.