OXFORD, UK — The number of normal-weight children who are dieting has almost tripled in the last two decades, according to new research.
Put simply, Oxford University researchers say that healthy children shed the pounds because they are already dissatisfied with their bodies in primary school. The study finds that attempts to lose weight outpace increases in obesity gain for all adolescents.
“There was also a significant increase in the reported prevalence of eating disorders,” the researchers write in the journal Archives of childhood illnesses.
“While no causal relationship has been established, the focus on childhood obesity among policymakers and public health activists, the frequency and tone of media coverage, and the rise of a social media culture promoting the ‘thin ideal’ have potential to increase weight dissatisfaction among non-obese children and adolescents.”
The Oxford University team analyzed 34,235 eight- to 17-year-olds who took part in the annual England Health Survey from 1997 to 2016. They found that the proportion of healthy weight teenagers trying to shed the pounds increased from about one in 20 to almost one in seven.
“In England in 2015/16, approximately one in five children aged 8-12 and one in three children aged 13-17 reported attempting to lose weight, including some children of a healthy weight,” the study authors write .
Which children are more likely to diet?
Losing weight in children across the weight spectrum has skyrocketed. The prevalence was higher in older children and girls. The trend outpaced the increase in obesity gains during the period and the provision of services to meet demand.
“The prevalence of weight loss attempts has increased in all age BMI z-score categories over the past decade, particularly among boys, older children, children of Asian descent, or children from lower-income families compared to their peers,” the team said Corresponding author Dr. Aryati Ahmad Notes.
“Overall, being overweight or obese, and being female, from a minority ethnic group, or from a low-income household significantly predicted weight-loss attempts in this population.”
Researchers add that one in three children in the UK is now overweight or obese, according to the BMI Z-score, which measures children who are still growing.
“The rise in childhood obesity in recent years has coincided with an increase in self-reported weight loss attempts, particularly in subgroups of the population with a lower baseline prevalence of weight loss attempts. However, this includes an increase in children of healthy weight, suggesting a parallel increase in inappropriate weight problems,” the team continues.
Although childhood obesity has become a government health priority, there is relatively little information on how many children participate in weight management programs or are trying to lose weight. The survey reported on the social and demographic characteristics that may be associated with weight loss attempts, including age, gender, ethnicity, and household income.
Rates of overweight children dieting are skyrocketing
Trained nurses measured height and weight during a home visit. Analysis of responses showed a significant increase over time in the overall proportion of children attempting to lose weight—from about one in five (21.5%) in 1997–98 to more than one in four (26, 5%) in 2015-16.
They increased in all weight classes between 1997-98 and 2015-16, exceeding the proportion of overweight or obese children. The proportion of those willing to lose weight rose from nine percent to over 39 percent among the overweight and from only 33 percent to almost 63 percent among the overweight.
It also rose from more than five percent to almost 14 percent in the same period. The 2011-12 survey year was the first to find evidence of a significant proportion of healthy-weight children reporting weight loss attempts, up from zero the previous year to just over 15 percent.
Healthy kids choosing to diet ‘raise concerns’
According to the team, this happened to be the start of individual weight feedback to parents or caregivers as part of the National Child Measurement Program. The number of children and young people diagnosed with eating disorders in the UK rose sharply during the pandemic – with some patients as young as six.
“The increasing efforts to lose weight among children who were overweight or obese may indicate some success in communicating the importance of weight control to this group,” the researchers conclude.
“It is worrying 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 behaviour. Meanwhile, the increase in weight loss attempts among children of a healthy weight is a cause for concern and suggests that more attention is needed to properly target weight management messages.”
“More research is needed to understand the reasons for weight loss attempts in young people at a healthy weight and to reduce their occurrence. Actions to tackle obesity among young people need to be sensitive to reduce the risk of promoting inappropriate weight control practices.”
Mark Waghorn, author for the South West News Service, contributed to this report.