Obesity may be the biggest public health crisis facing the UK today. Levels have risen more than three fold since 1980. Being obese makes you vulnerable to a range of health risks. Being an overweight child makes it more likely you will become an obese adult. And you are much more likely to be an overweight child, if you come from a poor family. If current trends continue, half the population of Britain could be obese by 2050. Early intervention is the most effective way to break this cycle. And that requires a better understanding of why children become overweight. A new study by a team at the ESRC funded International Centre for Lifecourse Studies in Society and Health at UCL and LSE makes clear the scale of the problem and points to some crucial factors likely to lead less-well-off children to gain excess weight, as co-author Professor Yvonne Kelly explains.
A link between poverty and childhood obesity has been found in many developed countries. Intuitively, it seems likely this link is the result of poorer parents not being able to afford healthier food, like fruit, or outings involving exercise for their children. It could also be that those parents know less about healthy lifestyles and that they themselves eat less healthily and exercise less. But intuition is an insufficient basis for the scale of intervention required. This study is the first attempt to examine and compare in detail why children in poorer families are more likely to be overweight.
Our data comes from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS). This tracks nearly 20,000 families from across the UK. We used measurements made when the children were aged 5 (when just entering primary school) and 11 (the point at which they leave primary school and are on the cusp of adolescence). We used standard definitions for ‘obese’ and ‘overweight’.
‘Stark’ link between poverty and obesity
The first thing we found was that the link between relative poverty and childhood obesity is stark. At age 5, poor children were almost twice as likely to be obese compared with their better off peers (6.6% of children from families in the poorest fifth of the sample were obese while the figure for the richest fifth is just 3.5%). By the age of 11, the gap has widened- nearly tripling (7.9% of the poorest fifth are obese; for the best-off, the figure is 2.9%).
Given that obesity is linked to the development of numerous chronic diseases and that there is evidence overweight and obese children are less likely to grow into economically and socially successful adults, this is a significant burden to be borne by the children of the less-well-off. And unless we can weaken the link our chances of reversing the overall obesity trend are much reduced.
Potential causes of that link
The MCS collects a broad range of data, allowing us to dig beneath these headline numbers to identify some of the specific ways in which relative poverty in childhood leads to an increased risk of obesity.
To measure the degree to which the mother followed a healthy life-style we looked at factors previously shown to be linked to the increased risk of obesity, such as whether the mother smoked during pregnancy, how long she breastfed for and whether the child was introduced to solid food before the age of four months.
We could also factor in the degree to which the mother was herself overweight or obese. To assess the impact of physical behaviour, we compared the frequency of sport or exercise, active play with a parent, hours spent watching TV or playing on a computer, journeys by bike and the time that children went to bed. We compared dietary habits via data on whether the child skipped breakfast and on fruit and sweet drink consumption.
What we found was that a lot of these factors were relevant. Maternal behaviour in early childhood was certainly important. Markers of ‘unhealthy’ lifestyle here could mean as much as a 20% additional risk of obesity for a child. Measures of physical activity and diet were also relevant at both 5 and 11 years of age, as were early bedtimes and fewer hours in front of the TV or games console. Skipping breakfast and eating more fruit were factors at 5 but less significant at 11. Doing sport more frequently played a more important and protective role at age 11 than at age 5.
Further examination of the differences between the children aged 5 and aged 11 revealed that poorer children aged 5 were much more likely to gain excess weight up to age 11 than richer children. The earlier certain lifestyle factors can be challenged, therefore, the greater the chance of positive impact.
Assuming that income inequality is not going to disappear, we can only tackle ‘inherited’ obesity via the lifestyle choices that tend to go with lower incomes. Early intervention with mothers clearly has huge potential. And evidence from our work suggests that this should start before birth or even conception. It is clear, too, that campaigns to encourage family physical activity and healthier diets would help.
The Government is already trying to persuade families to eat more healthily and take more exercise. But these efforts are widely targeted and their effectiveness only broadly assessed. Our analysis has already suggested better targeting. More research should be undertaken to narrow the aim and increase effectiveness still further.
Why are poorer children at higher risk of obesity and overweight? A UK cohort study is research by Alice Goisis, Amanda Sacker and Yvonne Kelly and is published in the European Journal of Public Health.
Photo credit: Playing on the computer, John Watson