30 Jan 2015

Obesity rates ‘levelling off’, but are kids losing weight?

A rapid rise in childhood obesity may be starting to slow down – but researchers say there are still no grounds for complacency.

More than a third of children in England are overweight or obese, according to a 20-year study of electronic health records.

They looked at the anonymised electronic health care records of more than 370,500 children, aged two to 15, who had accumulated more than half a million weight (BMI/body mass index) assessments between them over a period of 20 years (1993 to 2013).

Read more: Gastric bandwagon: the key questions on obesity

The children were patients at 375 general practices across England, whose data was in the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, a database containing the health records of around 5.5 million patients registered with 680 general practices.

The analysis showed that between 1994 and 2003 the prevalence of being overweight and obesity in all children increased by just over 8 per cent each year. But the rate slowed substantially between 2004 and 2013 to 0.4 per cent a year, suggesting it may have levelled off.

Among the boys, the highest figures of being obese or overweight were seen in 11 to 15-year-olds, which ranged from around one in four (26.7 per cent) in 1996 to almost four out of 10 (37.8 per cent) in 2013.

Trends were similar for both boys and girls, but differed by age group.

These patterns were similar among girls. Once again, the highest rates were among 11 to 15-year-olds, ranging from 28.3 per cent in 1995 to 36.7 per cent in 2004 and 2012.

“There are several possible theories for the recent stabilisation of childhood overweight and obesity rates,” write the researchers, led by Dr Cornelia van Jaarsveld, of the Department of Primary Care and Public Health Sciences, King’s College London. “One explanation may be that rates have reached a point of saturation.”

Alternatively, public health campaigns may actually be starting to work, they say.