Friday, March 10, 2006

The child obesity panic

Panic: A new report by three British official bodies has criticised the government for a lack of progress on tackling child obesity. For example, it has taken 18 months just to agree on how obesity should be measured. The report quotes statistics suggesting that the proportion of obese children has risen from 9.6 per cent in 1995 to 13.7 per cent in 2003. By 2010, the report says that the cost of treating diseases caused by obesity across the whole population - including hypertension, heart disease and type 2 diabetes - will reach o3.6billion per year. Steve Bundred, chief executive of the Audit Commission, said: 'If the trend continues, this generation will be the first for many decades that doesn't live as long as their parents.'

Don't panic: While it is true that certain diseases are more common in obese adults, the vast majority of people can still expect to live into old age whatever their body shape. If fears about obesity are overstated for adults, they are even more misplaced when it comes to children.

It is by no means certain that children who are fat will go on to be fat adults. Figures suggest about 30 per cent of obese children stay that heavy in adulthood. Telling a child that being overweight means they are effectively sick may have some impact on their waistlines but is likely to be a recipe for misery in years to come. As Dr Dee Dawson, a specialist in treating eating disorders, notes: 'We should not be getting children obsessed about what they eat, how much fat and calories there is in their food, how they look. Most of them are perfectly fit and well.'

Nor are the alternatives necessarily much better. While getting some exercise, like walking regularly, seems to be beneficial, taking a lot of exercise may have little additional benefit. Dieting is not only regularly unsuccessful, but has itself been associated with health problems. As an editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine noted in 1998, 'Until we have better data about the risks of being overweight and the benefits and risks of losing weight, we should remember that the cure for obesity may be worse than the condition'.

The most controversial idea, quoted regularly, is that children of this generation will have a lower life expectancy than their parents. While not impossible, it seems highly unlikely. Firstly, it assumes that obesity is the reason that very fat people tend to die younger, rather than lack of exercise, poverty, poor quality of diet or a host of other reasons. Secondly, it suggests that this one lifestyle factor could overcome the effect of all the other medical and social developments which have provided consistent rises in life expectancy. For women, life expectancy has risen every decade for the past 16 decades, and for both sexes lifespans are rising by roughly two years every decade.

If we are really concerned about child obesity, we should stop fretting about what children eat and give them more opportunity for active, independent play. However, given our increasingly risk-averse approach towards kids, there's fat chance of that.


No comments: