Childhood obesity - a new epidemic?
By Rachel Rosen
One in three children in the UK is now overweight, while one in five is obese - so how worried should we be?
What is obesity?
Obesity is commonly measured using the Body Mass Index (or BMI), a ratio of height and weight. Adults are considered obese at a BMI of 30 or above, but measuring children's BMI is more complicated because they’re still growing. The best way to find out if you should be worried about your child’s weight is to ask your GP.
How common is it?
Some figures suggest that over a third of children between the ages of 2 and 15 are obese and the number is growing.
There's some cause for optimism. New research from Kings College London indicates that while numbers of overweight and obese children are still rising, they're going up more slowly than they were. From 1994 to 2003, there was an average 8% increase each year. But between 2004 and 2013, this rate dropped to 0.4% – so while childhood obesity is still increasing in the UK, it’s no longer galloping out of control.
Even so, researchers warn that these figures shouldn't cause complacency. The change could be down to successful campaigning but it could also mean that so many people are already obese that there isn’t as much room for increase.
What are some of the risks?
By itself, a person’s weight doesn’t tell you very much. It’s certainly possible to be heavier than average and in good health. But obesity is a risk factor for several serious health conditions including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers. This doesn’t mean that obese people definitely will have these problems, but it does make a good case for taking your child’s weight, diet and activity levels seriously.
What can I do if my child is obese?
It can be scary to hear that your child is obese. Try to remember that young people are often sensitive about their weight (like adults!) and may not appreciate a big fuss being made about it. And research shows that negative attitudes to about a person’s weight probably won’t help – and could actually interfere – with weight loss efforts.
Fortunately, there’s a lot you can do to help if your child is struggling with their weight:
- Help them choose healthy foods. Keep healthier snacks around the house and try to avoid processed meals or convenience food (like crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks) which are typically high in fat, salt and sugar. An easy way to make sure your child is eating healthily is to cook meals yourself when you can – then you’ll see exactly what goes into their food. You can find more information about making healthy food choices here.
- …and healthy portions. Children don’t usually need to eat as much as adults. You may want to start them off with smaller servings and let them ask for more if they’re still hungry – although remember that if they’re used to eating a lot, it might take a while to adjust. It’s also best to avoid making a child finish everything on their plate if they don’t want to – this can lead to overeating and make it harder for them to tell when they’re naturally full. You can read more about portion sizes for children here, or ask your GP if you’re not sure how much your child should be eating.
- Emphasise exercise. In today’s world it can be hard to get enough exercise, but it’s important for children to stay active. Encourage them to get involved in sport or try a new outdoor activity. It doesn’t have to be all at once – even 10 minutes of activity here and there, like a walk after dinner, is a good start.
- Make time for sleep. In addition to sleep’s other health benefits, research has shown that children who don’t get enough rest are more likely to be overweight. Making sure your kids are sleeping enough is a sensible step that will help them feel better overall.
- Don’t assume it’s just a phase. Research on childhood obesity suggests that obese children are more likely to be obese later in life. Of course, children’s bodies go through lots of changes as they grow – including weight gain – but parents of overweight children should stay alert, to avoid long-term problems.
- Be patient. Sadly, there's no overnight solution for weight issues. Rapid weight loss isn’t safe or sustainable, especially for children. Building good diet and exercise habits at a young age sets an important foundation for later life, so take your time and try to keep the focus on a healthy lifestyle. If you’re looking for specific ways to get started, NHS project Change for life has lots of advice on incorporating healthy eating and exercise habits into your family’s day to day life.
If you’re worried about your child’s weight, talking to your GP is a good first step. They can give you expert information on obesity and healthy eating, and can also help detect or rule out medical conditions that can cause weight gain.