More flabby claims about obese children

The anti-obesity industry is now so massive that it has to keep inventing health crises to justify its existence.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘One in five children is obese by the end of primary school, NHS figures show’, declared last Wednesday’s Guardian. The number of British children aged 10 to 11 who are obese is (slightly) up from last year. But the news stories about the latest stats reflect the prevailing narrative of an impending ‘obesity timebomb’. That is, they don’t bear much relationship with reality.

The new figures come from the National Child Measurement Programme, which measures children’s height and weight when they start and leave state-run primary schools. In 2010-11, 19 per cent of children in their final year of primary school – Year 6 – were deemed to be obese, up from 18.7 per cent in 2009-10. On the other hand, the number of children who were deemed obese when starting primary school (entering Reception class) fell from 9.8 per cent in 2009-10 to 9.4 per cent in 2010-11.

Taking a slightly longer view, comparing the first year of the measurement programme with the most recent figures, the latest report shows that the number of overweight and obese children in Reception fell, while the proportion of obese primary-school leavers rose from 17.5 per cent in 2006-07 to 19 per cent in the last school year.

However, before we declare that children are getting fatter, the report notes: ‘It is estimated that Year 6 obesity prevalence was underestimated by around 1.3 percentage points for 2006/07, around 0.8 percentage points for 2007/08, and around 0.7 percentage points for 2008/09, due to obese children being more likely to opt out of being measured than other children.’ In other words, once we take into account problems with gathering the data, it may very well be that the proportion of obese children has pretty much stayed the same over the past five years. That hardly fits in with the idea that schools full of chubby children are going to become hospitals full of barely mobile, diabetic adults in years to come.

Given the hysteria about childhood obesity in recent years, this could have been presented as a good news story. There’s actually relatively little sign of corpulence-related disaster ahead. But instead, the response has been more handwringing and more demands for the government to do something. Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow public-health minister, said: ‘What is needed is nothing short of a revolution and yet the government is really struggling with the basics.’ Paul Sacher, paediatric dietician and chief research officer at MEND – which runs weight-loss programmes with local health authorities – declared: ‘With one in three children overweight or obese in the UK, the government must intervene to protect the health of our nation’s children and prevent this crisis from continuing to spiral out of control.’

The obesity panic clearly has a life of its own. Even when there is little evidence of a ‘rising tide of obesity’, the demands for intervention continue. A whole industry of awareness-raising campaigners and medical experts has been created that needs to be sustained – and that means hyping up the dangers of having a spare tyre.

As if to illustrate the point, a new campaign by charity-cum-pressure-group the British Heart Foundation (BHF) is demanding an end to the advertising of ‘junk’ food to children online. ‘We need your help’, says the BHF’s own online marketing. ‘Children in the UK today are eating too much sugar, fat and salt, and 80 per cent of children are not getting their five-a-day. Television advertising regulations recognise that children are vulnerable to the influences of advertising with a ban in place on junk food being advertised during children’s programmes. Yet vague rules allow unhealthy foods and drinks to continue to be directly marketed to children online. We need to take urgent action to close this loophole.’ A whole host of questionable assertions is pulled together to demand state censorship of the internet, with little evidence that this will achieve anything in relation to children’s health.

Nothing shouts the need for greater intervention – in the eyes of this obesity industry, at least – than the fact that children are far more likely to become obese if they live in a deprived area. The new figures suggest that in the most deprived areas 23.7 per cent of 10- to 11-year-olds were obese, compared with 13.8 per cent in the least deprived areas. Clearly, the poor and ethnically diverse will need the help of wise experts and well-meaning busybodies to prevent their children from turning into sickly blimps.

That said, the fat obsessives aren’t fussy: they want to save us all. And demanding that we should think about the children is as emotive as it gets.

Some people do have serious health problems associated with being very overweight. Instead of telling great swathes of society that they are sick – or even more cynically, that their children are sick – it would be far better to devote that energy to treating people who are actually ill. Then maybe the rest of us can enjoy our food in peace.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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