Health risks for obese children may be worse than anticipated

Teaching children the importance of healthy eating has never been more important. AAP

A growing body of evidence suggests being obese as a child or adolescent may have a larger effect on future health than previously thought.

In a new meta-analysis of 63 studies including nearly 50,000 children in highly developed countries, researchers from the University of Oxford explored the association between weight and risk factors for heart disease in children.

“Being overweight in adulthood is well known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However the effect of obesity on children is currently less well understood,” the researchers wrote in BMJ.

The research showed that obese children and adolescents have several risk factors for heart disease including raised blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and a thickening of the heart muscle, compared with normal weight children.

The meta-anlaysis study strengthens the evidence base, said Boyd Swinburn, professor of population health at Deakin University.

“You need these meta analyses to take you into the helicopter so all these bits of information get put I one place - that’s the real value of it.”

The study comes as Australian health experts call for a tax on sugary drinks and regulated portion sizes similar to that being deployed by New York regulators in an attempt to address the obesity epidemic.

Two thirds of the world’s population live in countries where obesity related illness is a significant cause of death, and over a 30-year period the worldwide prevalence of obesity in childhood has increased substantially, according to the University of Oxford paper.

The reluctance to take measures similar to those proposed in New York, despite models to prove them cost-effective, is as a result of food industry pressure, Professor Swinburn said.

“It’s a complex problem, it won’t happen with one or two things it’s going to be multiple things and policy makers are not comfortable with such a wide ranging group of issues.”

Professor Swinburn said despite cries from some segments that policy measures like those in New York were indicators of a ‘nanny state’, they were not about telling people what to do.

“There’s no policies in food and nutrition that are the equivalent of tobacco or seatbelts or drink driving. In the food arena you can’t pass a law to say what I can and can’t eat.

"All of these hard level policies are aimed against the environment, just making it easier for us to make healthy choices.”

In an accompanying editorial to the BMJ paper, Lee Hudson and Russell Viner at the UCL Institute of Child Health in London, write the review “provides a stark illustration of the probable threat that childhood obesity poses to disease burden in the population”.

“The next 5-10 years is going to be a significant period in human history where we’re going to have to rethink a lot of these things,” said Garry Egger, professor of health and human sciences at Southern Cross University.

Professor Egger said the only time he had seen a major reaction from government was when it was reported in the early 2000s that children of this generation may become infertile as a result of type 2 diabetes.

“When parents think their kids aren’t going to give them grandkids, then it becomes an issue.”

Professor Egger said that governments have been forced into a “schizophrenic” reaction to the obesity problem.

“They have to increase economic growth, but on the other it’s economic growth that’s creating the problem.”

Professor Egger said it was now time for radical and creative reforms to address the problem. He has in the past suggested taxpayer funded election campaigns.

“If you know how much power and influence the food industry has at the political level you know how difficult it is for them (the government) to change anything.”

Professor Swinburn compared the problem to the difficulty the government faced in getting plain packaging for cigarettes through.

“A single policy against a discredited, marginalised industry with 100% backing of everybody and they’re still fighting gigantic political battles to do it.”

He added that while the Oxford study was useful in bringing together all of the evidence on obesity and health risk, most models looking at the benefits of intervention didn’t take into account all of the issues.

“There’s an under-recognition of the physical, psychological and social problems caused by obesity and these models tend to underestimate the benefit of intervention.”