New research suggests childhood obesity not of “epidemic” proportions

Posted by Isobel Drake on 9th January 2009

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) has welcomed the release of research by Professor Timothy Olds from the University of South Australia, which discovered that rates of childhood obesity have plateaued.

Professor Olds’ research, as reported in The Australian today, found that childhood overweight rates had settled at about 23% over the past five to ten years, while childhood obesity rates were hovering around 6% over the same period. The research did, however, stress that obesity was still too common and anti-obesity campaigns needed to continue.

AFGC CEO Kate Carnell said that Professor Olds’ findings reflect those of the recently released, joint industry and federal government study: Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey.

“The joint study collected data on food intake, physical activity levels and the physical measurements of over 4000 children across Australia and was the first survey of its kind to involve both government and the food industry,” she said.

The survey found that:

* 76% of children were found to be of a normal weight.
* Marginally the same numbers of children were found to be obese (6%) as were found to be undernourished (5%).
* The proportion of children who were found to be overweight (17%) and obese (6%) has not increased since the last study was done in 1995.

Ms Carnell believes that Professor Olds’ similar findings demonstrate that the food industry and government’s measures to address issues associated with childhood obesity are working.

“Industry has taken the lead in promoting practical initiatives to address childhood obesity; this has included wide ranging information campaigns, better promotion of healthy eating habits and improved food labelling,” she stated. “The AFGC’s Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative, through which signatories undertake to not advertise food and beverage products to children under 12 in any media unless those products represent healthy dietary and healthy lifestyles choices, was also a step forward.”

Ms Carnell suggested that a myth has long been perpetuated that there was and continues to be a spiraling childhood obesity epidemic. “It is clear that Professor Olds’ research, along with the Council and Government’s own findings demonstrate this is just not the case,” she said. “Whilst any level of childhood obesity is always of concern, the fact that public health advocates have for too long focused on the issue of childhood obesity may have come at the detriment of a more serious issues such as nutrient deficiencies.”

Ms Carnell added that the food industry has long been taking practical steps to boost nutrient intake, including working with government on the further role out of folate, calcium and other mineral enriched products.

“If we are going to take the issue of preventative and adolescents health seriously, then it is imperative that we focus on a holistic approach. Ultimately, efforts to focus on obesity may prove to be counterproductive. Government must work with industry and the broader community to ensure that Australian Children have a well balanced diet containing all the nutrients needed for a healthy future,” Ms Carnell concluded.

The Federal Government’s Preventative Health Taskforce is currently working toward providing advice on ways to tackle obesity. Their recommendations are set to guide the National Preventative Health Strategy, expected to be announced in June.