• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Friday 25th February, 2011

Not so fat – was it something the government did?

A recent analysis of data by the National Heart Forum has been widely interpreted in the UK as evidence that the increase in child obesity rates is slowing down.The Forum’s revised figures suggest that by 2020 the proportion of boys between the ages of two and 11 who will be overweight or obese will be 30%, 12% fewer then previously predicted. For girls of the same age, the projection has been revised downward from 48% to 27%. A similar drop in the number of overweight and obese teenagers is also anticipated.The response of Susan Jebb, the UK Medical Research Council’s head of nutrition, has been typical. "It feels like we are in a different place from just two years ago – and that's justified,” she said last week.As chair of the cross-government Expert Advisory Group on Obesity, she has been at the center of the UK public health effort (and yesterday she received a Science Communications Award from The Society of Biology in recognition of that aspect of her work). The improvement was the result of a shift in public awareness and attitude, she said, coupled with some concrete local initiatives to support healthier eating and more physical activity for children.Without denying the significance of its findings, The National Heart Forum has been more cautious. Lead researcher Professor Klim McPherson said that clear as the new data might be, they did not say why obesity rates are falling.There were three likely reasons. Changes in food intake and energy output as a result of the communication effort were attractive possibilities, but it would take more work to find any evidence to support such a theory.But “cohort effects” – the third possibility – were almost certainly in play.“For example,” his report argues “it could easily be the case that in recent successive years the younger members of the 2-11 age group might have reduced numbers of overweight, while the older members with higher proportions of overweight move out of the group. “A similar mechanism could operate to account for the reduction in the percentage of obese in the 12-19 age group. The relative condition of youngsters coming into the group from the 2-11s are roughly constant over the years. If the distribution of the obese within the age group is weighted towards the older members, then one would observe a fall in obesity prevalence as time goes by.”Alongside population effects likely to have been operating before the campaign was launched, the researchers have acknowledged the significance of the greater precision with which UK data has been collected and processed since the alarm was sounded by the 2007 Tackling Obesities report.“The Government’s response was to launch perhaps the most comprehensive national strategy to tackle obesity anywhere in the western world,” the Forum report says.“The time lag in availability means that the data used were derived only from the years 1993 to 2004. The National Heart Forum modeling team are now able to analyze trends based on another three years data – up to and including 2007.“It is too early to show any impact from Healthy Weight Healthy Lives strategy which began in 2007, but these data are a good indicator of the direction of travel of the trends.”A similar shift has been recorded in several other countries, including the US, France and Denmark. In the light of the Tackling Obesities report, The Department of Health set itself the target of reducing the number of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels by 2020.Another commentator, Dr Ian Campbell, medical director of the charity Weight Concern, stressed that while the rate of increase may have dropped, rates of obesity among children were still rising.He said the government's Change 4 Life campaign – which aims to improve children's diets and boost their level of physical activity – had been well received, and he hoped it had already made a lasting impact. The UK Minister for Public Health, Gillian Merron, argued similarly that government initiatives had already had a positive impact, along with local work by the NHS and schools. But she added: "Obesity levels are still too high and we need to keep the momentum going.See: Brown M, Byatt T, Marsh T and McPherson K “Obesity Trends for Children Aged 2-11: Analysis from the Health Survey for England, 1993 – 2007,” Report by the National Heart Forum, October 2009

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