More than a quarter of schoolchildren are overweight or obese by the time they reach 11 years old and are stocking up for a lifetime of potential health problems – including cancer – according to a new study published today in the British Medical Journal by Cancer Research UK.
The study, which recruited 5863 pupils from London schools and tracked their weight over a five-year period, found that obesity is already established by the age of 11 with a quarter of all boys and girls falling into the overweight or obese category.
This rate was higher among girls (29 per cent overall) than boys and rose as high as 38 per cent among black girls. Among pupils from more socio-economically deprived backgrounds the rate was 31 per cent.
The report indicates that few pupils moved into the overweight or obese category between the ages of 11 and 16. But equally few of the children who were already obese or overweight dropped to a healthy weight during those years. The damage had already been done by the age of 11.
Professor Jane Wardle, of Cancer Research UK’s heath behaviour unit and leader of the study, said: “We have to abandon the idea that so called puppy fat doesn’t matter and that it will just disappear when a child grows up.
“The evidence shows that children who are overweight or obese when they start secondary school at 11 are likely to leave education in the same condition. This means it is vital we work at preventing obesity in early childhood.
”We know that overweight and obese children are most likely to continue carrying too much weight when they become adults and this will substantially increase their cancer risk as they grow older.”
The report found that black girls were taller and heavier, had a higher Body Mass Index and a larger waist circumference at the age of 11 than either white or Asian girls. There were few ethnic differences among boys. This pattern persisted over all five years of the study.
Black girls were more likely to be overweight than white or Asian girls while white girls were slightly more likely to be obese or overweight than Asian girls. Asian boys were more likely to be overweight or obese than other groups but not by any significant amount.
Girls from the most socio-economically deprived areas had consistently higher rates of being overweight or obese but did not gain weight faster than others over the five year period.
Prof Wardle has some advice for parents. “If your adolescent child is severely overweight, you will need to broach the topic,“ she said. “All young people are different, but there are a few guidelines. Discuss it without other people present. Consider expressing concern about future weight gain rather than present weight. Don’t be critical – your child won’t like being heavy any more than you do.
“Every overweight person asks ‘why me’ – it may be helpful to say that no-one knows why some people gain weight more easily than others. Offer to help to make healthy eating easier at home. Forget ‘do as I say’ – you need to do all the things that you want your child to do.“
Professor John Toy, medical director of Cancer Research UK, said: “We know that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer in adulthood. This study shows that a worryingly high number of children as young as 11 have already established a pattern of weight gain that can lead to health problems including cancer in later life.
“It is essential that we help parents to learn about the importance of cultivating healthy eating habits in children to give them the best possible start in life. A good diet includes plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and high fibre foods like wholemeal bread. It is also important to encourage children to take regular exercise. Playing sports or running in the park are healthier occupations than playing computer games.”
For press enquiries contact Sally Staples in the press office on 020 7061 8300, or the out of hours duty press officer on 07050 264059.
More than half all cases of cancer can be prevented according to Cancer Research UK’s Reduce the Risk campaign. The campaign’s key messages are:
- Stop smoking: It’s the best present you’ll ever give yourself
- Stay in shape: Be active and keep a healthy body weight
- Eat and drink healthily: Limit alcohol and choose a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Be SunSmart: Protect yourself in the sun and take care not to burn
- Look after number one: Know your body and see your doctor about anything unusual
For more information about different types of cancer, diagnosis and treatment for patients and their families, visit Cancer Research UK’s patient information website.