Childhood obesity is a fake epidemic

The NHS released the latest childhood obesity statistics earlier this month. Officially, 16.5 per cent of children aged between two and fifteen are ‘obese’. The rate rises with age, with a quarter of 13-15 year olds classified as obese.

Contrary to breathless claims by campaigners and the media, childhood obesity is neither ‘soaring’ nor ‘spiralling’. The official rate peaked at 19 per cent in 2005 and has hovered between 14 and 17 per cent ever since.

I emphasise the word ‘official’ because there is a world of difference between a child being classified as obese by the government and a child actually being obese. I have explained before that childhood obesity is measured very differently to adult obesity. A child whose Body Mass Index would have put them in the heaviest two per cent of their age group in 1990 is arbitrarily categorised as obese. This is based on the almost certainly false supposition that two per cent of children were obese in the 1980s.

In an act of unforgivable statistical humbuggery, the government drops the threshold from the 98th percentile to the 95th percentile when it collects national data. Grossly inflated at the 98th percentile, the figures become truly ludicrous at the 95th. You only need to chart the childhood obesity figures next to the adult obesity figures to see how farcical this is. Since rates of obesity rise with age, we should see a gradual increase followed by a decline in old age. Instead we see unfeasibly high rates amongst children and an implausible drop once children reach adulthood.

In case you’re wondering, the 16 to 24 year olds were not an unusually slim bunch in 2016. The same pattern occurs every year. Many of the 16 to 24 year olds were falsely classified as obese when they were at school and most of the 11 to 15 year olds who were classified as obese in 2016 will magically stop being obese by the time they’ve sat their GCSEs.

The figures published this month exhibit the same eccentricity, with the rate of obesity rising at every age group before plummeting in young adulthood.

The miraculous decline is particularly marked among boys. If the statistics are to be believed, their rate of obesity plunges by 60 per cent once they turn sixteen!

But it is blindingly obvious that the statistics cannot be believed. The real lesson from the graph above is that at least sixty per cent of 13 to 15 year old boys are wrongly classified as obese. The true rate of childhood obesity cannot be derived from the NHS data but it is clearly much lower than the government claims and is almost certainly far below the 15 per cent recorded for the youngest adult group (because, as mentioned, obesity rates rise with age).

Given the concerns about childhood obesity in Britain, you might expect organisations such as Public Health England to be thrilled to discover that the condition is far less prevalent than was thought. At the very least, you would expect them to recognise that the official statistics are a laughing stock and put a more robust system of measurement in place.

And yet there is no sign of any action being taken. While financial experts rightly complain about the shoddy methodology behind the Office for National Statistics’ Retail Price Index, there are no such complaints from the ‘public health’ lobby about the ludicrous methodology behind the childhood obesity figures. Week after week, the press, the government and health campaigners trot out the zombie statistic that one in three children is obese or overweight by the time they leave primary school, a claim that any parent or teacher with eyes can see is absurd.

One might almost surmise that the ‘public health’ lobby rather likes having implausibly large figures to cite, rather than admit that childhood obesity remains a relatively rare condition. Since there is no incentive for the likes of Public Health England to find out how many children are actually obese, the government continues to flail around, pulling every policy lever it can think of to fight a war against an invisible epidemic which even its own rigged statistics suggest has not worsened for well over a decade.


  • Mr Grumpy

    The writer’s previous articles explain the fiddle a lot more clearly than this one does.

  • ben gold

    It all must be true….but in my daughter’s class there are more fat girls than normal weight girls this is was not the case when i was in school….it is not my faulty memory, I have pictures.
    Grossly obese people were found only on TV and cinema in low quality comedies not in real life.
    What do you call a case when a theoretical argument you like doesn’t allow you to observe reality?

    • Mr Grumpy

      But have you observed such a steep drop in obesity levels between 11-15 and 16-24? OK, puppy fat is proverbial, but it seems at least one study has debunked the phenomenon – and if it was the explanation there would be no sense in labelling the kids concerned as obese.

    • I drive past two schools on my way to work and don’t ever remember seeing an obese child and possibly only one or two marginally fat ones

    • Chris Oakley

      I do hope that this is a tongue in cheek response. If not, it helps explain the cult of so called experts and why they get away with false statistics. I have my girl’s class photograph on the wall as I type and there are no obese kids out of 32 in the picture. Perhaps they were hiding behind the thin ones? Our two observed realities are very different and are also subjective. Officials statistics are supposed to be objective, comprehensive and accurate. In this case they appear to to contain a major logical flaw that suggests they may be less than robust, so perhaps my tiny observed reality might be closer to the mean than yours

  • Chris Allen

    Surely this has more do do with how poor a measure BMI is rather than any other factor, I imagine a peak in height growth often seen around 15 and 16 probably has alot to do with these results. I would love to see a better more productive measure being used.

  • ezyian

    Nothing to see here. BMI is useful for tracking not much else. Same goes for the childhood measure. It’s an indicator highlighting that MAYBE there is a problem. Children whilst growing are fundamentally different from adults. The fact that two methods are discontinuous is not a surprise.

    Obesity is a problem. It’s exact dimensions are difficult to estimate, but there is no doubt its far worse today than before 2000