New research suggests that around 26.5% of young people in England are trying to lose weight, with the number of healthy weight children attempting weight loss tripling during the 20-year study period.
The study analysed annual health survey data in England from 1997 to 2016, finding that the number of healthy weight children trying to lose weight has nearly tripled from one in 20 to nearly one in seven. The investigation highlighted that more than a quarter of children are attempting weight loss, which could be potentially dangerous to their health and mental wellbeing.
The findings are published in the Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Childhood obesity in the UK
Over the last few decades, childhood obesity rates have steadily increased in England, with one in three UK children now classified as overweight or obese by the BMI-Z score, which is used for children who are still growing.
Childhood obesity became a UK Government health priority in 2004, but there is little data on how many children attend NHS weight management programmes or attempt to lose weight. Therefore, the research team analysed data from 34,235 children aged eight to 17 who participated in the annual nationally representative Health Survey for England from 1997 to 2016.
What did they discover about weight loss among children?
The results demonstrated that the prevalence of weight loss attempts among children increased across the population, from 21.5% in 1997 to 26.5% in 2016. The number of overweight children trying to lose weight rose from 9% to more than 39% and from just under 33% to nearly 63% for those who were obese.
Worryingly, the number of children who were a healthy weight who were attempting weight loss increased from 5% to nearly 14%. The 2011–12 survey year was the first to show evidence of a considerable proportion of healthy weight children reporting weight loss attempts, rising from 0% to over 15% in this period.
The overall prevalence of reported weight loss attempts was generally higher among girls than boys, but the increase over time was more significant for boys. Moreover, weight loss attempts were more common for older children than younger children.
Additionally, rates of weight loss attempts were higher among children from ethnic minority backgrounds than white children across all age groups and higher for children from lower-income households.
The researchers concluded: “The rise in efforts to lose weight among children who were overweight or obese may imply some success in communicating the importance of weight control to this group.
“It is of concern that the increase has not been matched by an increase in the provision of weight management services in England, creating a risk of unsupervised and potentially inappropriate weight control behaviours.
“Meanwhile, the rise in weight loss attempts among children with a healthy weight raises concerns and suggests greater attention is needed to target weight control messages appropriately.”
“More research is needed to understand the drivers of weight loss attempts among young people with a healthy weight and to reduce their occurrence. Policies to tackle obesity in young people need to be sensitive to reduce the risk of encouraging inappropriate weight control practices.”