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Diet

Number of children on diets nearly tripled in two decades

Slimming among children across the weight spectrum shot up. Prevalence was higher among older children and girls.

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Kid with salad and tomato hat on his head, fake hair made of vegetables
(ESB Professional via Shutterstock)

By Mark Waghorn via SWNS

The number of children going on diets has nearly tripled in two decades, according to new research.

Healthy kids are shedding the pounds - already unhappy with their bodies in elementary school.

Slimming attempts among all youngsters is outpacing the rise in excess weight gain, say scientists.

Corresponding author Dr. Aryati Ahmad said: "There has also been a marked increase in the reported prevalence of eating disorders.

"The focus on obesity in children among policy makers and public health campaigners, the frequency and tone of media reporting and the rise in a social media culture which promotes the 'thin ideal' have the potential to lead to an increase in weight, and dissatisfaction among children and young people who are not overweight."

The University of Oxford team analyzed 34,235 eight to 17 year-olds who took part in the annual Health Survey for England from 1997 to 2016.

They found the proportion of healthy-weight youngsters trying to shed the pounds had gone from around 1 in 20 to almost one in seven.

Ahmad said: "In England in 2015/2016, around one in five children aged 8-12 years old and one in three children aged 13-17 years old reported attempts to lose weight, including some children with a healthy weight."

Slimming among children across the weight spectrum shot up. Prevalence was higher among older children and girls.

It outpaced the rise in excess weight gain during the period and the provision of services to meet demand.

But Ahmad said: "Weight loss attempts increased during the preceding decade in all BMI for age z-score categories, especially among boys, older children, children of Asian ethnicity or from lower income families, compared with their peers.

"Overall, having overweight or obesity, as well as being female, from an ethnic minority group or low-income household significantly predicted weight loss attempts in this population."

One-in-three children in the UK is now overweight or obese as defined by the BMI-Z score - used for children who are still growing.

Ahmad said: "The rise in childhood obesity in recent years has coincided with an increase in self-reported weight loss attempts.

"However, this includes an increase among children with a healthy weight, suggesting a parallel increase in inappropriate weight concern."

Childhood obesity first became a UK government priority in 2004, but there's relatively little information on how many children attend NHS weight management programmes or attempt to lose weight.

The survey reported on the social and demographic features potentially associated with weight loss attempts, including age, gender, ethnicity and household income.

Height and weight were measured by trained nurses during a home visit.

Analysis of the responses showed a significant increase over time in the overall proportion of children reporting attempts to lose weight - from around 1 in 5 (21.5%) in 1997–98 to more than 1 in 4 (26.5%) in 2015–16.

They increased across all categories of weight between 1997-8 and 2015-16, outpacing the proportion of overweight or obese children.

The proportion attempting to lose weight rose from 9% to more than 39% among those who were overweight and from just 33% to nearly 63% among those who were obese.

And it rose from more than 5% (1 in 20) to nearly 14% (one in seven) over the same time period.

The 2011–12 survey year was the first to find evidence of a notable proportion of healthy weight children reporting weight loss attempts, up from zero the previous year to just over 15%.

Coincidentally, this marked the start of individual feedback on weight to parents or carers as part of the National Child Measurement Programme, said the researchers.

The number of children and young people diagnosed with eating disorders across the UK rose sharply during the pandemic - some patients as young as six.

Pediatricians across England, Scotland and Wales saw up to a fourfold increase in cases at the end of 2020.

It speeded up ongoing trends. Between 2016 and 2020, referrals for eating disorders doubled across England.

Ahmad added: "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 behaviors.

“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."

The study is in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.

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