Black children at greatest risk of being overweight, study finds

16 February 2010

Black children in the UK are far more likely to be overweight than youngsters from other ethnic groups when they enter primary school, a newly published study suggests.

Researchers who analysed the weight of more than 12,000 five-year-olds found that more than one in three black Caribbean and black African children (36%) were overweight at age 5, compared with 17 per cent of Pakistani and 21 per cent of white children.

Black children had also been at the greatest risk of being overweight at age 3, say researchers at the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health at University College London.Thirty per cent of them had been classified as overweight at that age, compared with only 10 per cent of Indian children.

“This may reflect patterns of weight gain in infancy,” said Dr Lucy Griffiths, who led the research team. “Black babies included in this study also experienced the highest weight gain between birth and 9 months of age.”

The researchers, who analysed weight statistics gathered by the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), which is based at the Institute of Education, London, recorded higher proportions of overweight children in Northern Ireland and Wales than in England and Scotland. The survey found that one in four (25%) MCS children in Northern Ireland was overweight at age 5, compared with 24 per cent in Wales and 21 per cent in England and Scotland.

The proportions of children at risk of being overweight also varied by region. More than one in four (26%) five-year-olds in the North East of England were overweight, compared with only 18 per cent in the South West. At age 3, 27 per cent of the North East youngsters had been too heavy for their height, compared with just 19 per cent in the East of England.

Further analysis revealed that five-year-olds who had never been breastfed were more likely to be overweight (23% compared with 18% who had been breastfed for at least four months). Those who had been introduced to solid foods before the age of four months were also more inclined to be overweight (24% compared with 20% who had not had solid foods at such a young age).

Other factors associated with increased risk of being overweight at age 5 included: being a girl (23% compared with 19% of boys), living in a family with a lower household income, and having a less educated mother. Children of lone mothers were also at increased risk of being overweight at 3 and 5.

Overall, 23 per cent of the MCS children were overweight at age 3 and 21 per cent at age 5 — including 5 per cent at each survey who were classified as obese.

“Our findings suggest a continued need to promote breastfeeding and discourage premature introduction of solid foods,” said Dr Griffiths. “They also show the need to promote healthy patterns of eating and physical activity in the early years.”

The findings are reported in a book on the Millennium Cohort Study’s first three surveys, which is published today (February 17) by The Policy Press. Children of the 21st century (volume 2): the first five years is available from the publisher’s website

The Millennium Cohort Study is run by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education. It was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of Government departments. The analysis of child overweight (including obesity) reported here was carried out by Lucy Jane Griffiths, Summer Sherburne Hawkins, Tim Cole, Catherine Law and Carol Dezateux at the MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, UCL Institute of Child Health.

Further information

Jo Barber
UCL Institute of Child Health
020 7239 3125

David Budge
Institute of Education
(off) 020 7911 5349
(mob) 07881 415362

Notes for editors

1. Research into the determinants of childhood growth, overweight and obesity has been a priority for the Millennium Cohort Study since its inception. Child body weight and height were measured by trained interviewers at ages 3 and 5 years and waist circumference at 5. Two MCS samples were used for the analyses reported in this press release. The sample that was used to explore risk factors at age 3 comprised 13,128 singleton children — those born as a result of single, rather than multiple, births. They had been surveyed at age 9 months and 3 years. The analysis of risk factors at age 5 involved 12,354 singleton children who took part in each of the first three surveys.

2. The first survey of the Millennium Cohort Study took place between June 2001 and January 2003. It gathered information from the parents of 18,818 babies born in the four UK countries. The second survey took place at age 3 and the third at age 5. The study’s field of inquiry covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income and poverty; and housing, neighbourhood and residential mobility. It is the first of the nationwide cohort studies to over-sample places with high densities of ethnic minorities and large numbers of disadvantaged families.

3. Tackling childhood obesity is a priority for the UK government. In 2007, a long-term public service agreement target for addressing childhood obesity was set. The aim is to ‘reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 levels by 2020 in the context of tackling obesity across the population’.

4. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London, specialising in teaching, research and consultancy in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. The 2008 Research Assessment Exercise judged almost two-thirds of the work submitted by the IOE as internationally significant, and 35 per cent as ‘world leading’.

5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

6. The MRC (Medical Research Council) Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health is a partnership between the MRC and the Institute of Child Health at University College London. The mission of the Centre is to improve the health and wellbeing of children through collaborative research that aims to improve knowledge of the causes and mechanisms underlying child health and disease, and to enhance the scientific basis of strategies for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases affecting children and the adults they will become and for the promotion of their wellbeing.

The contract for data collection in MCS is awarded under competitive tender to specialist agencies. For three out of the four surveys undertaken to date the data collection was carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), who in turn sub-contracted the interviewing in Northern Ireland to the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency (NISRA). The agency responsible for the second round of data collection was Gfk-NOP, who sub-contracted in Northern Ireland to Millward Brown.

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