Preschooler generation might be first to buck obesity trend

Obesity rates have fallen most in children from disadvantaged communities. Wyan Vota

With one in four children obese or overweight, there is no shortage of bad news about Australia’s battle with obesity. But recently, a glimmer of hope has emerged.

Between 1999 and 2007 the prevalence of overweight and obesity among two and three-and-a-half year old Victorians declined, especially among children from disadvantaged areas.

Other research shows obesity among older children in Australia and some other countries had slowed or started to plateau. But this is the first time a clear decrease in overweight and obesity prevalence has been demonstrated in any section of the Australian population.

Our Deakin University research examined the measurements of more than 129,000 two year old children and 96,000 three-and-a-half year old children, using data collected by Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development.

The heartening result was the prevalence of overweight and obesity among three-and-a-half year old children dropped 3.1% (from 18.5 to 15.4%) in the eight years to 2007. Among two year olds, rates dropped from 13.5 to 12.4% in this period.

These results, a small but steady decrease, show promising signs that not only is overweight and obesity declining in some groups but that it may be possible to slow, even reverse, the widespread increase in obesity seen in recent years.

Obesity is well known to exhibit a social gradient, disproportionately affecting those of lower socio-economic position.

Although this remained true in our study, one of the most surprising findings was that overweight and obesity had fallen most among children from disadvantaged areas.

In 2007, the gap between the most disadvantaged and the least disadvantaged children was significantly smaller than in 1999.

The study was not able to assess reasons for the observed trends, however there are probably multiple contributors to the decline.

Increased media awareness of childhood obesity, healthy food and active play policies in kindergartens and day care settings, and education and advice from maternal and child health and primary care services seem to be lining up to support parents in their efforts to keep their children as healthy as possible.

While the results of the study are promising, there is no room for complacency or reduced action to prevent obesity among Australian children.

The rates of overweight and obesity are still high, social inequalities in prevalence persist, and there may to be an important period around the time children start school when obesity rates start to accelerate.

The environment in which Australian children grow up is heavily geared toward promotion of unhealthy foods and inactive lifestyles. Even during the preschool years, children are exposed to large volumes of advertising for unhealthy foods.

The marketing of junk food to children which drives the pester power is still an enormous force undermining parents’ attempts to create healthy diets for their children and regulatory action by government is long overdue.

Although our study showed a small but steady decrease across the state, other research, for instance the Romp & Chomp project, has shown that concerted efforts to build community capacity and create supportive environments for healthy eating and physical activity can have even greater effects on early childhood obesity.

Further investments are needed to build on our successes and learn more about the best ways to provide systems and environments that support parents and children to make healthy choices.