THE rise in childhood obesity has halted, defying warnings that it is an "epidemic" that is out of control. Obesity rates among children levelled off around 1998 and have remained steady ever since, exploding the myth that children are becoming more overweight than ever before. Research by the University of South Australia found the alarming rise in the percentage of children who were overweight or obese recorded through the 1980s and much of the 1990s had stalled. Timothy Olds from the SA University School of Health Sciences analysed 27 Australian studies of childhood weight status between 1985 and 2007 and found a "clear plateau" in recent obesity data.
The analysis concluded that overweight and obesity prevalence rates among children had settled at 23-24 per cent and 5-6per cent respectively for the past five to 10 years. "These findings directly contradict assertions in the published literature and the popular press that the prevalence of pediatric overweight and obesity in Australia is increasing exponentially," it said. Even in recent years, some researchers have predicted childhood obesity would reach adult prevalence levels within 30 years.
"People are always reluctant to let go a notion which is their life work," Professor Olds said. "I include myself in that because I've written quite a few papers predicting that exponential increase, but we've got to look at the facts and the facts don't bear that out."
Last year, comparative data published by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and a separate analysis by University of Sydney associate professor Jenny O'Dea also challenged the popular perception that children were becoming fatter by the year. Professor Olds said some still held to that viewpoint because they had a lot invested in childhood obesity. "It's a sensational story for the media, academics have built careers in dealing with and treating childhood obesity and, frankly, the success of their grants depends on a sense that it's a national crisis that's continuing," he said.
In April last year, Australia's governments added obesity to their list of national health priorities, alongside major killers such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Professor Olds said his study results should not detract from efforts to combat obesity, warning it was still too common among Australian children and was still on the rise among adults. The lull in weight gain among children could prove temporary if anti-obesity campaigns ceased, the study warned.
Professor Olds said walk-to-school programs, healthy diets and other improvements could finally be affecting the problem. He said some children could be more resistant to obesity, while others were genetically predisposed to weight gain. The recent lack of movement in childhood obesity rates could be linked to this difference. "(It may be) we've just reached a situation where we're so saturated with opportunity for inactive play, it's so easy to access energy-dense food, high-caloric food, that any child that will become overweight or obese has become overweight and obese."
Public Health Association of Australia's Mike Daube said it was probably too early to say that childhood obesity rates had levelled off, noting it had taken decades to achieve equivalent results in anti-tobacco campaigns.
Obesity Policy Coalition spokesman Craig Sinclair at Cancer Council Victoria said the sedentary, calorie-rich environments that children were growing up in had not changed. Today's children were more likely to carry extra weight, and tomorrow's health system would end up paying for those excesses through extra heart disease, cancer and diabetes admissions.
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