CLOSER’s research into the rise of the obesity epidemic across five generations has been cited in the Government’s Child Obesity Strategy.
The study – believed to be the first of its kind – tracked increases in body mass index (BMI) for more than 56,000 people born in the UK from 1946 to 2001. It was carried out by researchers at the MRC Unit for Lifelong Health and Ageing at UCL, MRC Human Nutrition Research at Cambridge, and the UCL Institute for Child Health.
The findings showed that children born since 1990 are up to three times more likely than older generations to be overweight or obese by age 10.
Since 1946, every generation has been heavier than the previous one – and worryingly, it is the most overweight people who are becoming even heavier. For example, the heaviest 2 per cent of people born in 1946 had a BMI of around 20 by the age of 11, compared to 27 for the most obese children born at the turn of the century.
People are also becoming overweight or obese at an increasingly younger age. Half the men of the 1946 generation were overweight by the time they were 41 years old, compared to age 30 for men born in 1970. Half the women born in 1946 were overweight by age 48, compared to 41 for the 1970 generation.
Other longitudinal evidence used to support the strategy has shown that 5-year-olds from the poorest households are twice as likely to be obese compared to children from better-off homes. By age 11, they were almost three times as likely to be dangerously overweight.
Longitudinal studies have also been used to justify specific measures outlined in the strategy. Research from the Millennium Cohort Study released earlier this year found that taking part in organised sports outside of school improves children’s educational attainment. The Government’s strategy emphasises the importance for children getting a least an hour of physical activity every day, and includes measures to support school sports.
But the Government has been heavily criticised for what have been called ‘weak’ efforts to act on the evidence. One of the most controversial initiatives is a voluntary target for manufacturers to cut sugar in children’s food and drink by 20 per cent over the next four years. Reductions in sugar content will be monitored by Public Health England.
Funding for school sports and breakfast clubs will be boosted from revenues of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy – or so-called ‘sugar tax’ – that comes into force in 2018. Longitudinal evidence has also been cited in the HM Treasury’s consultation document on the levy.
The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 33 charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups, said the plan fell “disappointingly short of what is needed”, with some anticipated measures “significantly watered down or removed entirely”.
Coverage of the Child Obesity Strategy
Financial Times: Watered-down childhood obesity strategy under fire