THE NATION’S childhood obesity crisis could be far worse than official figures show with tens of thousands of overweight children being at health risk without realising it, shocking new research suggests.
Experts from a Yorkshire university have revealed that measuring childhood obesity through Body Mass Index (BMI) may be providing inaccurate figures and failing to spot thousands of youngsters – especially girls – whose weight could put them at risk of diabetes or cardiovascular illness later in life.
An intensive study of almost 15,000 secondary school children in Leeds has measured pupils’ obesity using both BMI scores and their waist circumference (WC), shockingly revealing how more than 2,000 11-year-olds have a waist measurement above that which indicates serious risk in adult women.
The BMI figures produced by academics from Leeds Metropolitan University are in line with national studies which show that about one child in five is obese.
By measuring waist circumference, however, they discovered that almost 1,000 girls, 15 per cent of those measured, and more than 400 boys, around six per cent of those measured, were found to be obese and would have been missed by using BMI alone.
These children were classed as having “central obesity” with excess weight around their central organs.
Academics say the most shocking finding was that at age eleven, more than 2,000 girls in Leeds “exceeded the waist cut point for increased risk in female adults”, which is 80cm or 31.5in.
Claire Griffiths, a senior lecturer at Leeds Met, who led the research warned central obesity was linked to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular illness.
“The problem with BMI is that it does not tell us about the weight distribution on a child,” she said.
“Although the choice of BMI as a measure of obesity in children is well-established, and even recommended, widespread use of BMI to assess fatness in children may conceal differences in body composition and central adiposity which potentially pose a greater health risk.
“The data could have serious implications for public health, suggesting that there is a need to understand the relationship between BMI and WC, with growth and health risk.”
The Leeds Met study measured the waist circumference of 14,967 Leeds school children aged 11 or 12 over the past three years.
The official National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) assesses children’s BMI in reception year and in their final year at primary school, aged 10 or 11.
The latest NCMP report showed almost one child in five in year six was obese – 94,315 pupils across the country.
Ms Griffiths said the Leeds Met research suggests thousands more would suffer with central obesity which will have gone unrecorded through the BMI measure.
Tam Fry, chairman of the Child Growth Foundation charity and spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, welcomed Leeds Met’s research but warned that it would be difficult to reproduce on a national scale.
He said: “BMI has never ever been the perfect measure. It simply measures weight in relation to height, but it does not show where the weight is. This study has been done in a very focused way in one city. These measurements could not be replicated by health workers across the country.”
Instead he called for nationwide BMI screening of children to be done in every year rather than just twice in primary school.
He also praised TV chef Jamie Oliver for campaigning to make the Government ensure academies and free schools were made to adapt healthy school meal standards.