Friday, 30 January 2015

That childhood obesity panic

From the BBC...

Child obesity rates 'levelling off' among under-10s 

The rise in childhood obesity, which has left one in three UK children overweight, may be beginning to level off in the under-10s, a study suggests.

Regular readers of this blog will know that it's not beginning to level off. In fact, it's not just levelling off. It's falling and the fall has been going on for more than a decade, at the same time as the hysteria about the younger generation 'dying before their parents' has become the conventional wisdom.

These are the obesity figures for boys (from the Office for National Statistics):

And these are the figures for girls:

The first line of the BBC article uses the old trick of conflating obesity with overweight, but even if you combine the two measures there has been a clear decline in the last decade. Overweight + obesity peaked at 31.9% amongst 2-10 year olds in 2005 and has since fallen to 25.6%. For 11-15 year olds, it peaked at 25.5% in 2004 and has since fallen to 19.9%. It is simply untrue to say that 'one in three UK children [are] overweight'.

The BBC article is based on a new study which comes up with different figures from those of the ONS. Although it says that obesity/overweight has flatlined amongst 2-10 year olds, it claims that rates have continued to rise amongst 11-15 year olds. Personally, I'll trust the ONS until I'm given a good reason not to. Either way, the hysterical predictions are looking very shaky. The timebomb never went off and it was never going to.

It took years for the BBC to acknowledge that alcohol consumption was in decline from 2004 onwards. Could today's report be the start of the corporation coming to terms with the obesity epidemic not panning out in the way that was predicted?

Don't forget that it is only twelve months since we were told that the obesity 'epidemic' could be 'much worse than predicted'. We were told that 25 per cent of children would be obese by 2050. In fact, childhood obesity has fallen from 17.4% in 2002 to 15.2% in 2013.

Can someone explain to me how a demonstrable decline is worse than a predicted rise? Shouldn't the soothsayers of public health be downgrading their predictions in the light of real world evidence? Or could it be that obesity forecasts are never intended to have any predictive power and are only devised to scare the public into accepting illiberal laws?

"An endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." - Mencken


Christopher Snowdon said...

I still don't understand how they measure obesity at population level. Short of putting everyone on a scale, which is possibly what they do for children, I don't get it.
Then, the demographics tend to change over a 10 year period. If there are more children from Asia, for instance, than 10 years ago, I suppose it has to be taken into account, but I don't know how they do that.
So while your point is perfectly right (the BBC can't read a chart), I have some doubts on the statistics themselves.

Christopher Snowdon said...

I agree, Jean. The ONS probably makes a better job of getting a representative sample (including accounting for changing demographics) than does this new study, which uses GPs' records. One has to question why a new study was required when we have an Office of National Statistics. The cynic in me says they found the ONS figures didn't suit their agenda.