Junkfood Science: “Hype and exaggeration”

December 18, 2006

“Hype and exaggeration”

Parents in England are refusing to allow their children to be weighed by school officials, perhaps understanding the harm that results to their children better than officials.

A new Independent article suggests that the Public Health minister may be using this excuse to explain unimpressive numbers to support a childhood obesity crisis when the National Childhood Obesity Database is released this Wednesday.

But health officials’ claims of a childhood obesity epidemic have come under criticism before for not being supported by the evidence and being primarily “hype and exaggeration.” Dr. Peter March, co-director of the Social Issues Research Centre said “there has been very little change [in child obesity rates] over the last decade, contrary to the lurid warnings that the current generation of children will die before their parents.” An analysis of the annual Health Survey for England issued last year by the Social Issues Research Centre concluded:

There have been no significant changes in the average weights of children over nearly a decade. This can be taken as evidence that there has been no ‘epidemic’ of weight gain.”

The assumption is that as our children and young people get fatter their health suffers correspondingly. The Health Survey data, however, do not support this view. There has been no change in the incidence of acute illnesses and, more importantly, no rise in the number of children suffering from longstanding illnesses, which includes type II diabetes. There has, in fact been a slight decline.

Among their other findings:

* BMI trends have been broadly flat for both boys and girls aged under 16 years in the period 1995 – 2003, with very modest increases in average BMI of around 0.5 for boys and 0.6 for girls.

* There is no indication of any significant change in the number of children with chronic illnesses, including type II diabetes, over the past 9 years. The absence of any evident deterioration in the health status of children supports the conclusion that children are not becoming fatter as fast as is widely believed.

* The prevalence of obesity is strongly related to age. The 16-24 year age group – both males and females – is substantially less at risk of becoming obese than older age groups, and the incidence of obesity for males in this age range has declined very slightly in recent years.

* More young men and women in the 16-24 age group have a 'desirable' BMI of between 20 and 25 than any other BMI category. Men of this age are twice as likely to be underweight as they are to be obese.

SIRC report concluded: “The Health Survey for England provides grounds for a serious re-think.”

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