Junkfood Science: Another myth exposed: the "epidemic of childhood obesity and poor health in Australia"

October 03, 2008

Another myth exposed: the "epidemic of childhood obesity and poor health in Australia"

Just as in the United Kingdom and the United States, the myth of a growing epidemic of obesity and disease among Australia’s children and teens has been shown false by its government’s own statistics. It was only this past summer when Australia’s fat bomb was resoundly defused. Now, as proposals to address Australia’s “childhood obesity epidemic” become increasingly extreme, costly and unsupported — from mandatory after school sports exercise programs for the nation’s school children to banning advertisements for breakfast cereals — two new government reports reveal that an epidemic of childhood obesity is a myth and that Australia’s children and young people are healthier than ever…

“Look at all of those fat kids today!”

One of most natural of human psychological tendencies can lead us to feel totally certain that we are correct in our beliefs… beliefs that are entirely wrong. It’s a common fallacy of logic called confirmation bias that can mislead even the most practical-minded of us, if we don’t safeguard against it using solid science. Confirmation bias simply means is that we instinctually see and remember information that confirms what we already think is true, and we don’t see or we rationalize away information that contradicts our preconceptions. Over time, our beliefs become so well-confirmed in our minds, we feel even more certain that the evidence overwhelmingly supports our beliefs.

Its close cousin is subjective validation, where we readily accept subjective information (rather than objective, measured data) that validates what we believe. So, subjective validations — such as a random correlation that seems to confirm what we believe — feel considerably more impressive and valid than they actually are.

Confirmation bias is, perhaps, most evident when it comes to beliefs about an epidemic of obesity and poor health among on our populations. “Look at all of those fat people!” becomes reinforced with every image in media of the most extreme examples of fat people (typically impersonally depicted as headless and engaging in some stereotypical activity, such as eating cookies). Even the facts behind “obesity statisticulation” can’t overcome the assuredness of beliefs.

“Look at all of those fat kids today!” has similarly been reinforced by confirmation bias, convincing us of a childhood obesity epidemic here in the U.S. — and been used to justify more than a 2,000% increase in CDC funding, alone, for healthy eating and physical activity programs to address child obesity, just since 1999. Every media story reinforces beliefs in the dire state of our children’s health and we rarely hear or see the evidence that they are healthier and living longer than ever before.

The very same situation has just been shown in Australia. Health reporter Torry Shepherd writes of the new government report, General practice activity in Australia 1998-99 to 2007-08: 10 year data tables, which showed that children and young people are no fatter today than they were a decade ago.

Major study finds childhood obesity epidemic 'a myth'

AUSTRALIA'S children are no fatter than they were 10 years ago, prompting experts to warn the exaggerated focus on an obesity "epidemic" is increasing the rate of eating disorders. A report out today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare shows the rates of both overweight and obese children have stalled in the past decade.

Eleven percent of children aged from two to 17 are obese [note correct data below], while 17 percent are overweight. Health experts say while these figures are still too high, the confusing messages about weight loss as governments warn of an "epidemic" are having a negative impact on children's self-esteem.

Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman Tania Ferraretto said research suggested an increase in eating disorders in young children was because they were more "worried about getting fat". "You don't have to keep beating the drum about kids getting fat… it's destructive because they can't put it into context and work out what it means," she said….

Australian Medical Association state president Dr Peter Ford said children were very perceptive of criticism of their weight, which could lead to low self esteem. "In some ways they don't have the control that an adult has… It could lead them to get very mixed messages and feel overburdened with the responsibility of it."…

Collin Segelov, executive director of the Australian Association of National Advertisers, told media: “This makes the notion of an obesity epidemic, as continually put forward by academic activists and others — quite irresponsibly in my opinion — quite misleading, if not an utter nonsense.”

While the General practice activity in Australia data tables aren’t yet available online, the larger Australian governmental report on the health and wellbeing of Australia’s children and young people from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare was released last week. This report, Making progress: the health, development and wellbeing of Australia's children and young people, examines the key indicators of youth health, development and wellbeing. The good news received barely a whisper from media.

Children’s health and wellbeing surpass all previous generations

According to the report, which compiled data from multiple government agencies, most of Australia’s children are being given the best possible start in life. The report’s key points shows that children today are healthier and living longer than at any other time in Australia’s history. Here are highlights of the health indicators available in this report:

Overweight. According to this report, 6% of Australia’s children aged 6–11 years were at or above the 95th percentile on BMI growth curves in 2006, and 5% fell below the 5th percentile. Among adolescents (13-19 years of age), 5% were at or above the 95th percentile on BMI growth curves in 2004–05.

Those who believe there’s an epidemic of gargantuan children as seen in media, have been taken in by confirmation bias.

Child mortality.Far fewer children than in generations past die before the age of 20,” the report began. Most young people grow up free from infectious diseases such as measles and polio, and more survive serious illnesses such as cancer and those with genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis live longer. Just since 1997, mortality rates among Australian young people (1-19 years old) fell by more than a third.

The highest death rates (about 4 per 10,000) were among teen boys, which were twice that of teen girls “largely due to higher mortality from transport accidents, intentional self-harm and other injuries.”

Infant mortality. “The infant mortality rate almost halved between 1986 and 1998, and has since stabilised at 4.7 deaths per 1,000 live births in 2006. The leading causes of infant mortality were perinatal conditions (such as SIDS, complications of the placenta, cord and membrane) and congenital malformations, accounting for 80% of infant deaths.”

Teen births. Teenage births, which can significantly raise risks to the health and wellbeing for young women and their babies, fell from 2.2% in 1995 to 1.7% in 2005.

Immunizations. A full 92–93% of 1 and 2 year olds on the ACIR were fully immunized in 2007, exceeding national coverage goals. Immunization coverage has increased over the past decade, especially among 2 year olds, with nearly a 50% increase just since 1997. “Among 2 year olds, immunisation rates were similar for Indigenous and other children, meeting the 90% target.”

Leading cause of death.Injuries (including poisoning) are a major cause of acute care utilisation, long-term disability and mortality among children. They are the leading cause of death of children aged 1–14 years in every industrialised country, including Australia. Among 5–12 year olds injuries and poisoning accounted for one-third of all deaths in 2006 and almost 30,000 hospitalisations in 2006–07. Injuries can also result in permanent disability. In 2003, more than 120,000 Australians had a disability where their main disabling condition was caused by an injury that occurred before the age of 20.” Injuries are the real cause of death among young people that can be largely preventable, said the report.

Hospitalizations. About 1.4% of children (5-12 years of age) were hospitalized in 2006-7 because of injuries. “Injury hospitalisation rates were 60% higher for boys than girls, and 30% higher for Indigenous than other children.” Nearly half were because of falls and another 17% because of motor vehicle accidents.

The hospitalization rate due to diabetes — nearly all (98%) for type 1 diabetes — increased by two-thirds since 1998–99 (to 0.085% of children in 2006–07). Asthma hospitalisation rate decreased by one-third, to 0.33% of children.” There has been no real change in the hospitalisation rate for mental and behavioural disorders”— accounting for 0.18% of children in 2006–07.

Preventive dentistry. “Average number of decayed, missing or filled permanent teeth among 12 year olds has been relatively stable at one since the mid-1990s. On average, Indigenous children had more decayed, missing or filled teeth than other children in 2002 (2.5 and 1.8 times as many for 6 and 12 year olds, respectively). Children living outside major cities and in the most disadvantaged areas experienced worse dental health than average.”

Teen risk behavior. Teenage substance abuse has shown a steady decline over the past decade. Teen smoking rates have been cut in half just since 2001, to around 10% of teens. “Risky alcohol intake and illicit drug use have also reduced.” Teens who “drink alcohol in a pattern that is risky or high risk to their health long term” is down to about 8%. And those having tried illicit drugs in the past year has been reduced by around a third, to just over 15%. About 0.6% of all teens were under juvenile criminal supervision in 2006-7, a drop of 20% in the past six years; but there’s been no change among indigenous teens who are over-represented in the juvenile justice system.

The facts from Australia’s government statistics show remarkable improvements in the health of young people over recent decades. Today’s generation of infants, children and teens are enjoying dramatically lower mortality rates than any other previous generation. Doomsday stories are simply that, scary stories driven by agendas, not facts.

The key gaps in health needs among Australia's young people, as seen in all developed countries, aren’t what childhood obesity initiatives are addressing. And amidst the good news of young people’s health, the gaps that do exist are among those children of socioeconomic disadvantage and indigenous young people (4.1% of children) who live with poverty, homelessness and crime. This report is supposed to be the essential document used by public health policy makers, researchers and healthcare providers. Will officials focus on the key issues affecting all young people and the most disadvantaged children highlighted in this report or see only the fat ones?

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