OXFORD, United Kingdom — The number of normal weight children going on diets has nearly tripled over the last two decades, according to new research. Simply put, researchers from the University of Oxford say healthy kids are shedding the pounds, already unhappy with their bodies during grade school.
The study finds slimming attempts among all youngsters are outpacing the rise in excess weight gain.
“There has also been a marked increase in the reported prevalence of eating disorders,” the researchers write in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood.
“Although no causal relationship has been shown, 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 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 went from around one in 20 to almost one in seven.
“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,” the study authors write.
Which children are more likely to go on diets?
Slimming among children across the weight spectrum shot up. Prevalence was higher among older children and girls. The trend outpaced the rise in excess weight gain during the period and the provision of services to meet demand.
“The prevalence of 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,” the team, led by corresponding author Dr. Aryati Ahmad, notes.
“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.”
Researchers add one in three children in the U.K. 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 among population subgroups with lower baseline prevalence of weight loss attempts. However, this includes an increase among children with a healthy weight, suggesting a parallel increase in inappropriate weight concern,” the team continues.
Although childhood obesity has become a government health priority, there’s relatively little information on how many children attend weight management programs 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.
Rates of overweight children dieting are skyrocketing
Trained nurses measured height and weight 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 one in five (21.5%) in 1997–98 to more than one in four (26.5%) in 2015–16.
They increased across all categories of weight between 1997-98 and 2015-16, outpacing the proportion of overweight or obese children. The proportion attempting to lose weight rose from nine percent to more than 39 percent among those who were overweight and from just 33 percent to nearly 63 percent among those who were obese.
It also rose from more than five percent to nearly 14 percent 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 percent.
Healthy children choosing to diet ‘raises concerns’
Coincidentally, this marked the start of individual feedback on weight to parents or caregivers as part of the National Child Measurement Program, according to the team. The number of children and young people diagnosed with eating disorders across the U.K. rose sharply during the pandemic – with some patients being as young as six years-old.
“The rise in efforts to lose weight loss among children who were overweight or obese may imply some success in communicating the importance of weight control to this group,” the researchers conclude.
“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.”
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.