18 October 1999

Good Theory But Can It Work?

by Kate Melville

New research to be published in the British Medical Journal indicates that most British children are both overweight and obese before they start school.

The findings, based on a study of children (at the ages of 24, 49 and 61 months of age) born in the Bristol area between 1991-2, and are in line with the evidence that there is a British epidemic of adult obesity according to the study's authors.

According to Dr John Reilly from the University of Glasgow the team leader, by the age of two years 15.8 per cent of the children studied were overweight; by the age of four this figure had increased to over one in five (20.3 per cent) but a year later, the percentage of overweight children had fallen slightly to 18.7 per cent. In terms of obesity, Reilly similar patterns with children aged four who showing the highest levels (77 of the 1013 children in this group were described as obese). The authors say that their definition of obesity was conservative, and that the true prevalence of childhood obesity in the UK is likely to be higher than indicated in their study.

Somewhat predictably they have called for efforts to prevent obesity to begin in early childhood. Generally this means that teachers will be called upon to provide more nutrition related education within a framework that is internationally known as Empowerment Education. This is where rather than just providing information students are taught how to make correct decisions (for example about food). It is a widely used teaching philosophy and has been for some time, but it doesn't work or studies such as this would not show ever increasing obesity in children. What is the answer? Well not more studies or more teaching, perhaps scientists will have to work more closely with advertising agencies to devise hard-hitting campaigns that actually reach and influence young people!