Several news articles have been published today (19 July 2022) raising concerns about a rise in the number of children trying to lose weight. These articles stem from a new publication in the Archives of Disease in Childhood by Dr Aryati Ahmad and colleagues who analysed data from the Health Survey for England between 1997 to 2016. Here we share our comments on the research behind the headlines.
Childhood obesity and excess weight are significant health issues for children and their families and have serious implications for a child’s physical and mental health, which can persist into adulthood. Children living with excess weight are more likely to become overweight/obese adults and they have an increased risk of developing diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease in later life.
The National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) helps the government monitor childhood obesity. Individual level feedback from the NCMP has received considerable media attention, which together with increased awareness of the importance of healthy weight management, may have contributed to some of the increase in the prevalence of reported weight loss attempts among children living with overweight and obesity noted in this paper. Of concern, as the authors highlight, is that efforts to lose weight have not been matched by an increase in the provision of weight management services to support this. The paper also reports weight loss attempts in children with healthy weight to have risen. Previous research has suggested that there has been an increase in weight misperception and in dieting to lose weight amongst young people, and societal and media pressures may be contributing to this. This underscores the importance of appropriate health messaging around weight to young people and their families and carers.
Whilst interesting, this study does have some limitations. The assessment of attempts to lose weight were based (for children aged 8-12) on a single question answered by the parents, whilst those aged 13-17 were interviewed in the presence of the parent or carer, and the answers provided may not accurately reflect the children’s eating and dieting behaviours. To establish clear conclusions, it is necessary to identify the approaches taken to lose weight and the reasons why weight loss was considered necessary, by the parents and carers or by the children. It is unclear whether the NCMP programme or other social factors influenced the decision to lose weight, or the methods adopted to achieve that goal. Without an understanding of what motivated weight loss and which methods were adopted, it is difficult to establish conclusions regarding the delivery of weight management services or establish parallels relating to the prevalence of eating disorders.
However, this study does highlight the need for greater understanding of the influence of public health campaigns and messaging around overweight/obesity, which must consider potential adverse effects and ensure that they minimise any risk of weight stigma.
For more information on nutrition and healthy eating at any age, visit the Life stages section of our website.
Help us improve
We'd love to hear your thoughts about this page below.
If you have a more general query, please contact us.
Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.