Sugar-coating the childhood obesity problem

Child obesity figures appear to be on the rise again, causing much concern after earlier signs they had levelled off.  The proportion of  10- and 11-year-olds who were obese in 2015-16 was 19.8 percent, up 0.7 percent on the year before. There was a rise of 0.2 percent among four- and five-year-olds. The announcement comes as researchers at the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies at UCL have been looking in detail at how and when children become overweight. The team has also been asking whether children who are overweight are more likely to go on to smoke and drink alcohol and if their mental health suffers as they become adolescents. Yvonne Kelly explains the research findings, and considers their implications for the Government’s recent strategy for tackling the childhood obesity epidemic.

The Government’s much-awaited and much-debated childhood obesity strategy was published in August. In the end, it was less comprehensive than had been anticipated, less draconian too. It focuses on two things – reducing sugar consumption and increasing physical activity. But will it be effective in reversing this worrying obesity trend among our children?

It’s fair to say we don’t fully understand what things influence whether, when and why a child might become overweight. Research to date has shown three distinct weight pathways for children: a healthy BMI throughout childhood; becoming overweight during childhood and being overweight/obese throughout childhood.

Previous research has also shown that the child’s mother’s weight, smoking in pregnancy, mental health and other social and economic factors have some link to childhood obesity. But the evidence is far from complete and, where a child’s own mental health is concerned, it’s not at all clear which way the association works.

To try to get a clearer picture of all these things, our research looked at the BMI paths of the participants in the Millennium Cohort Study, which has tracked the lives of nearly 20,000 children born between 2000-2002. We used data collected at birth, 9 months, age 3, 5, 7 and 11.

Once we had established who was on which BMI path, we were able to look at what factors were at play in their lives and to see whether a tendency to overweight and obesity was an indication that a child would go on to face mental health difficulties in early adolescence or start smoking and drinking.

Four pathways to obesity

The BMI data for the 17,000 children we were able to look at for our study showed four distinct groups of children. More than 80 per cent of them stayed on an average non-overweight path throughout their childhood – we call it the ‘stable’ path. There was a small group (0.6 percent) of children who were obese at age 3 but were then in the stable group by age 7. We call them the the ‘decreasing’ group. There was a ‘moderate increasing group’ (13.1 percent) where children were not overweight at age 3 but whose BMIs increased throughout childhood into the overweight (but not obese) range. Finally we had a ‘high increasing’ group of children (2.5 percent) who were obese at age 3 and whose BMIs continued to increase.

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Girls were 30 percent more likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ group than boys and were half as likely to be on the ‘decreasing’ path. Indian, Pakistani and Black African children were up to two times more likely to be on the ‘moderate increasing’ path whilst Pakistani, Black Caribbean and Black African children were up to three times more likely to belong to the ‘high increasing’ group.

The wealthiest children were least likely to be in the ‘moderate increasing’ BMI group and children of mums who smoked during pregnancy were up to two times as likely to belong to increasing BMI groups. Children with overweight mums were most likely to be on the moderate and high increasing paths.

Children on the moderate and high increasing paths were less likely to have regular family routines – they were more likely to skip breakfast or have non-regular bedtime schedules. Interestingly, however, no strong links emerged with some of the things more readily linked with childhood obesity such as sugary drinks and snacks, watching TV and lack of physical activity such as sports, the main focus of the newly published childhood obesity strategy.

Overweight factors

So it seems quite a large range of factors influence the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese over the first decade of their life. On top of this, being overweight or obese would also seem to point to a less happy and fulfilling early adolescence and a tendency to explore risky behaviours like smoking and drinking.

Although our research did not show a clear link with sugary drinks and snacks, there are nevertheless some compelling arguments for reducing the sugar intake of our children. These are not only related to problems of obesity, but to wider issues including the major issue of tooth decay and associated emergency hospital admissions. There is also increasing evidence of the ‘addictive’ nature of sugar with research suggesting that it stimulates a sort of ‘reward path’ in certain centres of the brain meaning that the more we have the more we want. It has been shown that people who reduce their sugar intake tend to crave it less.

Where sugar taxes have been introduced in other countries (Mexico, France, Denmark, South Africa amongst others), the intervention has been shown to help reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. As yet, there is no evidence that it helps reduce BMI and tackle obesity, but it’s argued it will take time for us to see an effect on whole populations.

Disadvantaged families

It is hard to predict how much impact the voluntary rather than mandatory reduction in sugar content of drinks and snacks agreed in the strategy will have. As for the sugar tax that will be introduced in two years’ time, there remain concerns that disadvantaged families more likely to purchase and consume sugary goods than their better off counterparts will be hardest hit. Policy makers will need to think hard about how any negative consequences of this might be counteracted.

Our research shows clearly that when it comes to the likelihood of a child becoming overweight or obese in the first decade of their life, there are many more influences than just sugar. Those influences are at play in families even before our children are born.

Helping pregnant women to stop smoking and maintain a healthy weight, making sure all young children have healthy eating and sleeping routines would seem to be key, together with targeted support for the ethnic and social groups identified as being most at risk.

Further information and resources

BMI development and early adolescent psychosocial well-being: UK Millennium Cohort Study is research by Yvonne Kelly, Praveetha Patalay, Scott Montgomery, and Amanda Sacker. The work, published in Pediatrics, is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Media coverage

Photo credit: Kim Stromstad

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