Why can’t we be honest about the raging epidemic of obese children?
I don’t know about you, but I prefer to get my health news from The Archers – so when the research was published revealing concerns about children’s weight I was already way ahead of The Archives of Childhood Illnesses.
You see, in The Archers, the not-so-little Rosie, daughter of Pip and Toby – who are co-parents despite their unconscious separation (go on) – was introduced as being a little too chubby by her uncle, Ben. He is a student nurse at Borsetshire General, which makes him practically Christiaan Barnard by Ambridge standards.
The outraged parents began to lash out at Ben, only to discover that Rosie, who is about to start school, couldn’t fit into any of her cousin’s objects. She was crying, while the adults were immersed in introspective anguish. Talk about a scenario that breaks taboos.
Frankly, it’s the most over-the-top plot since Tom Archer’s dream of a Home Farm goat’s milk kefir empire went sour. But there will, of course, be activists who claim that Rosie’s fictional weight is none of our body-shaming business. I tell them this: it takes a village to raise a child. And, more importantly, I think a huge swath of the population could use some guidance on how to stay healthy, as well as their families.
Because it’s pretty obvious that nature didn’t provide for a generation of stocky little monkeys huffing and puffing their way around the playground. As early as 2012, the WHO established that, worldwide, obesity kills more of us than malnutrition. Yet witness the moral panic surrounding a survey finding that more than one in four children in England are on a diet, ‘including some who are at a healthy weight’.
It makes for a great title until you dig into the granular details. Yes, 13.6% of those who were thin were actively trying to lose weight, which could be a sign of a more serious disorder. But the highest figures were for overweight and obese children: 39.3% and 62.6% respectively. Poor souls. It can’t be easy. In fact, in a world of junk food and high-calorie snacks, it’s truly difficult and admirable to regain control.
Significant progress has been made in recent years. According to the National Child Measurement Program, obesity rates have fallen slightly among primary school children: about 10% of four- and five-year-olds in reception class are obese, compared to 14%. The figure for 10 and 11 year olds in Grade 6 is now 24%, down 2%.
However, the fact that a quarter of children entering secondary school are obese – and around 15% are overweight – is nothing to be proud of. Rather the opposite. Not all children – not all people – are the same height and shape, but being clinically overweight at a young age is not a benign thing. Obese children are at higher risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, asthma and other long-term conditions. And that’s without even mentioning the impact on mental health of the stigma and prejudice they will inevitably face.
A friend of mine took her son to a GP because she was worried he had a debilitating illness. As the doctor examined her greyhound ribs and lanky arms, she gravely gave her diagnosis: perfectly normal. There are so few “normal” children these days that we worry unduly about the skinny few while dismissing the affliction of most as puppy fat.