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Childhood Obesity In The UK Has Plateaued, Experts Say This 'Conceals A Worrying Increase In Disparity'

'The plateau hides a more complex picture of increasing inequality.'

10/10/2017 23:31 BST | Updated 11/10/2017 10:32 BST

The rate of childhood obesity has plateaued in the UK over the last 10 years, but experts argue there is still more that needs to be done to tackle the issue.

The figures, released as part of a large-scale report published in The Lancet on Tuesday 10 October, showed the number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has increased 10-fold between 1975 and 2016.

However, over the last 10 years the statistics paint a different picture in the UK. From 1975 to 2005, the rate of obesity for girls increased from 3% to 9.5%. Then from 2006 to 2016, this levelled out and even decreased slightly from 9.5% to 9.4%.

A similar pattern was observed for boys. Between 1975 and 2005, the obesity rate increased from 2.4% to 9.7%. Then from 2006 to 2016, there was still an increase but at a smaller rate: from 9.9% to 10.9%. 

In 1975, out of the 200 countries studied, the UK had the 27th highest level of childhood obesity in girls and 39th highest level among boys. In 2016 it had dropped to the 73rd for girls and 84th for boys.

With evidence that the obesity rate has plateaued since 2005, does this mean the government’s childhood obesity plan is working? Not according to Tam Fry, patron of the Child Growth Foundation and chairman of the National Obesity Forum

“In my view, these claims should be taken with with a dose of salt,” Fry told HuffPost UK

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Fry referred to a blog by Susan Jebb OBE, a nutrition scientist, on the government’s website, in which she qualified the description “plateaued” with the word “arguably”, writing: “This conceals a worrying increase in the disparities between the most affluent and the most deprived areas”. 

Professor Russell Viner, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s officer for health promotion agreed that the plateau is “nothing to celebrate”.

“The Lancet report provides yet more evidence of the growing scourge of obesity, this time on a global level,” he told HuffPost UK.

“Disappointingly, closer to home the UK children’s figures have also worsened across the 21st century – although until last year they had been suggesting childhood obesity had plateaued.

“Whilst that trend was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, a plateau at critically high levels is of course nothing to celebrate.

“What’s more, the apparent plateau was hiding a more complex picture of increasing inequality; whilst rates amongst children from more affluent backgrounds have been improving, they have been worsening amongst our most deprived and vulnerable.”

NCDRISC
Rates of childhood obesity in the United Kingdom for boys and girls since 1975.

Professor Viner added: “Internationally, we are not the worst in the childhood obesity league table. We know that our childhood obesity rates have markedly increased over the last 25 years, although many other countries are catching up to us as obesity is no longer the preserve of wealthy countries. “

Fry believes the government still needs to enforce a more meaningful long term strategy to ensure the rates of obesity reduce - rather than just plateau.

“The government should put in place forthwith a meaningful strategy to tackle childhood obesity as opposed to the ‘wimpish’ programme that PM Theresa May published August 2016,” Fry said.

“The McKinsey Global Institute published a very workable plan in November 2014 but HM ignored it.”  

So if there is more the government can be doing, what else can parents do to ensure their children understand the importance of healthy eating?

According to Fry, the earlier mums and dads bring this up with their kids, the better.

“New parents should be doing whatever it takes to introduce their children to a healthy lifestyle within the first 1,000 days of their child’s life,” he said. 

“Early lessons are best remembered and parents should be vigilant that the children don’t slip into the bad nutrition and physical activity that combine to make them overweight.”

Fry added that parents should also be trying to ensure that their children keep to a healthy BMI [body mass index]. 

The top 10 countries with the highest rate of obesity in girls:

1. Nauru (Australia)

2. Cook Islands (near New Zealand)

3. Palau (island in the western Pacific Ocean)

4. Tonga (island in South Pacific)

5. Tuvalu (island in South Pacific)

6. Niue (island in South Pacific)

7. French Polynesia (collection of islands in South Pacific)

8. American Samoa (island in South Pacific)

9. Marshall Islands (island in the central Pacific Ocean)

10. Tokelau (island in South Pacific)

United Kingdom ranked 73rd. 

The top 10 countries with the highest rate of obesity in boys:

1. Cook Islands (near New Zealand)

2. Nauru (Australia)

3. Palau (island in the western Pacific Ocean)

4. Niue (island in South Pacific)

5. American Samoa (island in South Pacific)

6. French Polynesia (collection of islands in South Pacific)

7. Marshall Islands (island in the central Pacific Ocean)

8. Tuvalu (island in South Pacific)

9. Kuwait (western Asia)

10. Tokelau (island in South Pacific)

United Kingdom ranked 84th. 

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