Childhood Obesity

Between 1985 and 1995 the rate of childhood overweight doubled and obesity tripled in Australia. Unfortunately, overweight and obesity in Australia remains on the rise. Results from the 2007-2008 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey indicated that one in four children aged 5-17 years are now overweight or obese1.

Increasing rates of overweight and obesity among children and adults is a worldwide health issue and the World Health Organisation has established an International Obesity Taskforce to implement strategies to help combat the problem.

Obesity can cause physical, social and emotional health problems in childhood and adolescence. Weight related health problems in children include:

  • stress on the bones and joints, particularly in the hips, legs and ankles
  • fatty liver
  • snoring and sleep apnoea (stopping breathing while asleep)
  • high blood pressure
  • high blood fats
  • type 2 diabetes
  • stigmatisation, low self-esteem
  • behaviour problems.

Obese children in Australia have a 25 to 50% chance of becoming obese adults2. This chance increases with an increasing degree of overweight and the later into adolescence the excess body weight is carried. It is also increased if one or both parents are overweight or obese.

Overweight and obesity are the result of an imbalance between the energy consumed and the energy expended continually over time.

In simple terms this means that more energy (measured by kilojoules or calories) from food and drinks is being consumed relative to what is being burned up through being physically active during play and exercise. The additional energy is stored as fat.

Surveys indicate that compared with the Australian Dietary Guideline recommendations Australian children are consuming more than the recommended amounts of sugar and saturated fat1.

There is less survey data about changes in the energy expended, but it is strongly suggested that the energy we burn up has significantly decreased. Australian children are exceeding screen time guidelines (time spent watching television or playing video games) with two thirds of children exceeding the maximum limit of two hours per day3. The increased range of sedentary activities such as television, videos and computer games is often suggested to be a major contributor to the problem. The increased use of cars has also reduced energy use amongst both children and adults.

Some people’s bodies use less energy so they are more prone to becoming over weight or obese.

The body’s rate of energy usage is partly determined by family genetics. Also being undernourished during early infancy, or before birth can affect the way the body uses energy and increases the risk of becoming overweight or obese. However, it is known that an individual’s food and activity habits have the biggest impact on body weight. Small changes in food and physical activity habits can lead to major changes in body weight.

Where to from here?

To turn around the overwhelming trend of increasing childhood overweight and obesity will require actions at all levels of society.

Some areas suggested for change are:

  • food manufacturing and processing
  • food marketing and advertising
  • social and town planning
  • public transport and method of travel to school
  • food and physical education in schools
  • family food and physical activity environment.

What should my family do?

Individuals and families also need to take responsibilities to see this trend halted and then reversed. Start by becoming informed about healthy eating and reasonable levels of physical activity and then encourage friends and family members to adopt a healthier lifestyle.

The Australian Dietary Guidelines for Adults and Children are based on the best available research and can be used by individuals, families and other community groups to clarify what is a healthy eating pattern and lifestyle.

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating can help you plan the quantities of foods needed to balance your energy intake. You can assess your current diet using the Healthy Eating Assessment tool on this website.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) is an expert in helping children and adults assess their energy requirements and planning a healthy diet and lifestyle.

Documents:   Healthy eating tips for children

1 National Health Survey: Summary of results, 2007-08 (re-issue), Australian Bureau of Statistics
2 Must A, Strauss RS. Risks and consequences of childhood and adolescent
obesity. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 1999; 23 Suppl 2: S2-11.
3 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey ? main findings, Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO ) Preventative Health National Research Flagship, and the University of South Australia