Headlines about rising childhood obesity have one flaw: they aren’t true

‘One in five children obese leaving primary school’ is the headline of a BBC Health news story today. The article reports the shock news that 19.1 per cent of Year 6 children are now classified as obese, adding: ‘Campaigners said the figures should act as a wake-up call.’ Sure enough, various spokespeople are quoted as saying that the figures are ‘alarming’ and require urgent action. The last line of the article again hammers home the point that campaigners hope the figures ‘act as a wake-up call to the government’.

To save angry people the trouble of writing comments below the line, let me say here and now that I do not think it is a good thing if one in five children are obese by the time they leave school. My only question is whether this statistic really counts as news. And if it is news, is it more newsworthy than it was five years ago when the BBC published a remarkably similar story.

The statistic comes from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) which has just published childhood obesity figures for 2014/15. When I visited HSCIC’s website I noticed that its press release took a rather different message from the data, as can be gleaned from the headline: ‘Child obesity prevalence: national programme reports its lowest level on record for reception year children’.

HSCIC’s figures only go back to 2006/07 so ‘lowest level on record’ is not as impressive as it might seem. Nevertheless, HSCIC cannot be blamed for focusing on the only part of its release that is vaguely newsworthy. Nothing much else has changed. Compared to the previous year, obesity prevalence fell slightly among children who were starting school and remained exactly the same for children in Year 6.

One could argue that the HSCIC press release and BBC report are only separated by a difference of emphasis. The figures do indeed show that one in five children (19.1 per cent) are classified as obese in their final year at primary school. They also show that obesity prevalence has fallen among reception year children (from 9.5 per cent in 2013/14 to 9.1 per cent in 2014/15).

The BBC mentions the decline in reception year obesity, albeit as an aside, but then informs the reader that ‘the figures for obesity in Year 6 are on the rise’. Presumably it is this rise that makes the story newsworthy and it is why the publication of this routine data is a ‘wake-up call to the government’.

That would be all well and good if obesity rates were actually rising, but they are not. In the last five years, there has been no shift in obesity prevalence among Year 6 children according to the HSCIC data:

2010/11: 19.0%
2011/12: 19.2%
2012/13: 18.9%
2013/14: 19.1%
2014/15: 19.1%

The claim that obesity is ‘on the rise’ among this age group is entirely based on the fact that the current figure of 19.1 per cent is higher than it was eight years ago. However, a careful reading of the HSCIC report casts serious doubt on whether it is a ‘fact’ at all. The report’s authors repeatedly warn the reader to treat the older figures with scepticism because: ‘It is likely that Year 6 obesity prevalence in the first years of the NCMP (2006/07 to 2008/09) were underestimates due to low participation. This, and the impact of other improvements in data quality, should be considered when making comparisons over time.’

In short, childhood obesity is not ‘on the rise’ in the short term and it is very doubtful whether it has been on the rise in the medium term. In fact, we have data from the Health Survey for England going back to 1995 which show that rates of obesity among children aged between two and 10 peaked in 2005 and have fallen by a third in the last decade. Among 11 to 15 year olds, the peak arrived in 2004 and rates have since fallen by a fifth.

The stabilisation and subsequent decline of childhood obesity might not be as newsworthy as claims about its spiralling rise. It does not obviously lend itself to the ‘wake-up call’ that campaigners are hoping for. Nevertheless, it does have one advantage over the narrative of spiralling obesity that must count for something. It happens to be true.

  • Mark Magenis

    If that’s the only problem, I’m sure they will plough on with their plans, they did spend several precious moments writing them down on the back of a fag packet after all.

  • Colette

    My 4yr old grandaughter (and her class) were measured in school last week. Apparently this is all part of the Government plan to spot obesity at an early age and advise on proper eating habits. Although my little grandaughter is unaware of the ‘bigger picture’ I was appalled when I heard this. My daughter, while conforming with this request (there was an opt out section to be signed if preferred) made a very good point. Wouldn’t it be better if the Government measured kids to ensure that they were receiving enough food to eat, if they have to interfere at all! Food for thought!

  • Thelma King Thiel

    How about publicizing information that can help children and adults as well, to make healthful food and lifestyle choices. It is distressing to see how we’ve failed to educate our youth about the dangers of
    obesity and many other food and lifestyle choices that impact their liver health.

    Many individuals grow up with the mentality that their bodies are invincible. In
    reality, their body and especially their liver, needs them to know how to
    protect it from liver related diseases through the use of alcohol, drugs,
    unhealthy food and lifestyle choices.

    Providing the rationale for changing behaviors is missing. Preventative education
    starting at an early age, is essential to bringing liver related diseases under

    Unfortunately, because the liver is a non-complaining organ most people are unaware of the
    liver and the miracles it performs 24/7. They are clueless about the
    devastating impact their unhealthy food and lifestyle choices can have on this
    life sustaining organ. Liver related illnesses including: obesity, fatty liver,
    diabetes, high cholesterol, atherosclerosis, strokes and even heart attacks are
    preventable. They all begin on day one with what we feed your children.

    The liver has zillions of liver cells serving as the body’s micro-chips, converting
    food into hundreds of essential body functions including producing energy,
    immune factors, digestive juices (bile), clotting factors, excretion of toxins
    (alcohol, drugs, pollutants), control of cholesterol and hundreds more. Liver
    cells are the employees in your personal chemical refinery.

    Making healthy food and lifestyle choices with the limited use of carbs, fats, sugar,
    alcohol, plus daily exercise will help keep liver cells healthy and your body
    in good shape. Healthcare providers should be encouraged to evaluate adolescents
    for potential liver problems and to educate them and their parents about ways
    to prevent further damage to their miraculous liver. Prevention begins at day one and parents must
    take responsibility for their children’s health to prevent chronic liver related
    illnesses that can impact their future health and life itself.

    For some reader friendly motivational messages regarding liver health visit
    Liverlady.com. Please share what you have learned with family, friends, and
    especially teachers. Prevention begins with you. Visit; Liverlady.com

  • Gurraj Sandhu

    Well, the BBC reporting via sensationalism? No surely not. The key about the figures is, they are not falling, nor are they rising. We can take a sigh of relief they’re not “spiralling out of control” but if they haven’t changed noticeably in 4-8 years,then our politicians aren’t doing enough. They should be falling, as to how the country achieves this is up for debate (constantly). The BBC are not helping the situation, because people will say “really?! a wake up call you say?” and then the figures will be quoted and people will rebuttal “oh, well it’s not that bad”.

    Bottom line is child obesity levels should be decreasing and reporting in a manner that creates hysteria is not at all helpful or professional. They emphasized the less important facts. Debate in the commons about this issue of stabilisation should be brought to light.