Headlines about rising childhood obesity have one flaw: they aren’t true

    27 November 2015

    ‘One in five children obese leaving primary school’ is the headline of a BBC Health news story today. The article reports the shock news that 19.1 per cent of Year 6 children are now classified as obese, adding: ‘Campaigners said the figures should act as a wake-up call.’ Sure enough, various spokespeople are quoted as saying that the figures are ‘alarming’ and require urgent action. The last line of the article again hammers home the point that campaigners hope the figures ‘act as a wake-up call to the government’.

    To save angry people the trouble of writing comments below the line, let me say here and now that I do not think it is a good thing if one in five children are obese by the time they leave school. My only question is whether this statistic really counts as news. And if it is news, is it more newsworthy than it was five years ago when the BBC published a remarkably similar story.

    The statistic comes from the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) which has just published childhood obesity figures for 2014/15. When I visited HSCIC’s website I noticed that its press release took a rather different message from the data, as can be gleaned from the headline: ‘Child obesity prevalence: national programme reports its lowest level on record for reception year children’.

    HSCIC’s figures only go back to 2006/07 so ‘lowest level on record’ is not as impressive as it might seem. Nevertheless, HSCIC cannot be blamed for focusing on the only part of its release that is vaguely newsworthy. Nothing much else has changed. Compared to the previous year, obesity prevalence fell slightly among children who were starting school and remained exactly the same for children in Year 6.

    One could argue that the HSCIC press release and BBC report are only separated by a difference of emphasis. The figures do indeed show that one in five children (19.1 per cent) are classified as obese in their final year at primary school. They also show that obesity prevalence has fallen among reception year children (from 9.5 per cent in 2013/14 to 9.1 per cent in 2014/15).

    The BBC mentions the decline in reception year obesity, albeit as an aside, but then informs the reader that ‘the figures for obesity in Year 6 are on the rise’. Presumably it is this rise that makes the story newsworthy and it is why the publication of this routine data is a ‘wake-up call to the government’.

    That would be all well and good if obesity rates were actually rising, but they are not. In the last five years, there has been no shift in obesity prevalence among Year 6 children according to the HSCIC data:

    2010/11: 19.0%
    2011/12: 19.2%
    2012/13: 18.9%
    2013/14: 19.1%
    2014/15: 19.1%

    The claim that obesity is ‘on the rise’ among this age group is entirely based on the fact that the current figure of 19.1 per cent is higher than it was eight years ago. However, a careful reading of the HSCIC report casts serious doubt on whether it is a ‘fact’ at all. The report’s authors repeatedly warn the reader to treat the older figures with scepticism because: ‘It is likely that Year 6 obesity prevalence in the first years of the NCMP (2006/07 to 2008/09) were underestimates due to low participation. This, and the impact of other improvements in data quality, should be considered when making comparisons over time.’

    In short, childhood obesity is not ‘on the rise’ in the short term and it is very doubtful whether it has been on the rise in the medium term. In fact, we have data from the Health Survey for England going back to 1995 which show that rates of obesity among children aged between two and 10 peaked in 2005 and have fallen by a third in the last decade. Among 11 to 15 year olds, the peak arrived in 2004 and rates have since fallen by a fifth.

    The stabilisation and subsequent decline of childhood obesity might not be as newsworthy as claims about its spiralling rise. It does not obviously lend itself to the ‘wake-up call’ that campaigners are hoping for. Nevertheless, it does have one advantage over the narrative of spiralling obesity that must count for something. It happens to be true.