Friday, 25 April 2014

Society’s fixation with children’s weight can be counterproductive, Lancaster University researcher warns

Dr Garrath Williams
A preoccupation with obesity could harm children’s overall health and wellbeing, claim researchers.

Childhood Obesity: Ethical and Policy Issues argues that the stigmatisation of childhood obesity may worsen health problems and that increasing obesity rates are far from the only social concern.

Co-author Dr Garrath Williams from Lancaster University explains, “Obesity is the most visible indication of more widespread health problems - low levels of physical fitness, poor diet, metabolic syndrome - that are found in many children, even those who may be ‘normal weight’ or underweight.”

The book argues that childhood obesity should not be our only focus, nor addressed in isolation.

“We need to look at the wider determinants of health - not just obesity or even diet”, says Dr Williams. “We need to think about other social priorities - such as sustainability, equality, safety, and children’s freedom - and find ways to address these priorities alongside one another.”

One of the main challenges is the stigma attached to obesity, say the authors. This contributes to many behaviours that can worsen children’s health outcomes, such as a reluctance to exercise or seek medical assistance and the adoption of dangerous, possibly counterproductive weight loss methods.

Dr Williams is one of 17 lead partners in the European Union-funded I.Family - Determinants of eating behaviour in European children, adolescents and their parents which began in March 2012 and runs until February 2017. Coordinated by Wolfgang Ahrens at Bremen University, this major collaborative project investigates the determinants of dietary and health-related behaviours in a large cohort of European families. Lancaster University is responsible for ethical aspects, policy implications and stakeholder involvement, and Dr Williams sits on the project Steering Committee both as a chair and co-chair.

I.Family follows an earlier project, IDEFICS (Identification and prevention of dietary-and lifestyle-induced health effects in children and infants), funded by the EU under Framework 6 from 2007-2012. This was an epidemiological and intervention project on childhood obesity, involving over 16,000 children across Europe. Dr Williams led the Lancaster team involved in this project - their contribution focussed on the ethical and public policy dimensions of the study and its findings. 

• Childhood obesity: ethical and policy issues by Kristin Voigt, Stuart G. Nicholls, and Garrath Williams, has been published by Oxford University

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