21 Jul 2022 — The number of children in the UK attempting to lose weight is on the rise, however scientists are warning of a three-fold increase in the number of children who are already at a healthy weight and are dieting too.
A study by the University of Oxford and a report by the Food Foundation are shedding light on the poor nutrition of children in Britain and the UK. The results reveal that children are struggling to lose weight, yet, at the same time, the rates of overweight and childhood obesity are rising.
NutritionInsight talks to the researchers, the British Nutrition Foundation and Action on Sugar and Salt, about the implications of these findings.
“We do not know why this happened among these children whether due to environmental or parental influence, medical conditions or with supervision or monitoring,” says Melissa Little, co-author and researcher at the University of Oxford.
Commenting on these findings, Dr. Annette Creedon, nutrition manager, British Nutrition Foundation, says: “Childhood obesity and excess weight are significant health issues for children and their families and have serious implications for a child’s physical and mental health, which can persist into adulthood.”
“Children living with excess weight are more likely to become overweight/obese adults, and they have an increased risk of developing diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in later life.”
Dieting habits of children?
The Oxford study used the findings of Health Survey England (HSE) from 1997 to 2016 and included the responses of 34,235 children aged 8-17 years. It found that the number of children dieting in these age ranges increased from 21.4% to 26.5% during that time frame.
The study further revealed that these increases were most pronounced among older children, Asian children, boys and all categories in lower-income families.
“It is clear that weight loss attempts amongst young people are rising,” states Little. “The majority of weight loss behaviors are in children who are above a healthy weight. This is a positive as it means that the message about the importance of maintaining a healthy weight is being delivered.”
“We need more services to support children with overweight and obesity who wish to lose weight so that this can be done in a safe and supportive environment.”
Healthy children are dieting too
The study also found that starting in 2012, there was a consistent increase in the number of children who were already at a healthy weight and were also trying to lose weight. It further revealed that this rise parallels a rise in eating disorders which could also expose healthy weight children to effects of undernutrition such as stunting.
“The fact that the children appear to be taking their weight and health seriously is positive,” says Dr. Aryati Ahmad, researcher, University of Oxford and Universiti Sultan Zainal Abidin. “However, it has to be taken with caution and provided with adequate supervision and monitoring. Appropriate weight messages need to be delivered to avoid any inappropriate weight control behaviors among children.”
“Previous research has suggested that there has been an increase in weight misperception and in dieting to lose weight amongst young people, and societal and media pressures may be contributing to this,” explains Creedon. “This underscores the importance of appropriate health messaging around weight to young people and their families.”
Of concern, as the authors highlight, is that efforts to lose weight have not been matched by an increase in the provision of weight management services to support this.
UK children facing malnutrition on all sides
The Food Foundation report shows that despite increased attempts to lose weight, child obesity rates jumped 50% from 2019 to 2020. It reveals that 14.4% of first-year children in England and 15.5% of first-year children in Scotland are considered obese.
For children born this year, one in four will be overweight or obese by the time they enter their first year of school. Furthermore, the report predicts that three-quarters will be overweight or obese by age 65, one-third will have diabetes, and one-fifth will have cardiovascular disease.
The report further notes that the UK government set targets to cut childhood obesity in half by 2030. However, the rate of childhood obesity has increased by 50% since that goal was set in 2018.
Setting the table
Food Foundation’s report points to children’s breakfast cereals as a factor in the rise in childhood obesity.
“Only 7% of breakfast cereals marketed to children are in fact ‘low’ in sugar,” says Katharine Jenner, director, Action on Sugar and Salt. “But why? These are some of the biggest food companies selling millions of cereal boxes globally. Kellogg’s alone represents nearly a third of the global retail value and have previously reformulated their products to contain less salt and sugar.”
“The majority (55%) of their products are still unhealthy, and instead of working to reformulate and improve the nutritional quality of their food, they have focused their efforts on trying to overrule the Government’s restrictions on promotion and advertising of HFSS food,” she underscores.
Creedon concludes that these things “highlight the need for greater understanding of the influence of public health campaigns and messaging around overweight/obesity, which must consider potential adverse effects and ensure that they minimize any risk of weight stigma.”
By William Bradford Nichols
This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.
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