UK city sees decrease in child obesity thanks to program from Bar-Ilan prof.

The number of children with obesity has risen globally for a long time, particularly for those living in poverty. Recent estimates from WHO state that 41 million worldwide are obese.

July 9, 2019 20:21
3 minute read.
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Burger and fries. (photo credit: PEXELS)


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Childhood obesity is a global problem that has reached epic proportions among the world's population. The effects of obesity on health are well documented. High blood pressure, strokes, diabetes and heart disease have all been proven to be connected to a poor diet and lifestyle.

Parents and their children attending a HENRY Healthy Families Group Program in Lambeth, south London, April 2019 / GOLDFISH COMPANY

The number of children with obesity has risen consistently risen globally for a long time, particularly for children living in poverty. Recent estimates from the World Health Organization state that 41 million children worldwide are overweight or obese. Including adolescents, that number rises to 124 million, a tenfold increase in the last forty years.

One city in England has managed to buck the global trend. Leeds, England's third largest city, has seen a significant fall in child obesity since 2009, according to a study published in the journal Pediatric Obesity by Professor Mary Rudolf, head of the Department of Population Health at the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University.

Professor Mary Rudolf (Credit: Bar Ilan University)

Data was collected using the National Child Measurement Programme, where local authorities measure and report annually on children's weight and height in state schools. The measurements are taken when children enter the school system at ages four to five years of age as well as in their final year of elementary school at 10 to 11 years old.

Conducting her research from 2009 to 2017, Rudolf found that, unlike England as a whole and specific neighboring cities, the number of obese children in Leeds fell by 6.4%. 

"We used nationally collected data in our study, so it was very obvious that something different was happening in Leeds," she said.

Rudolf will present the results of her study to the Food and Health Forum in Parliament next week, a cross-party forum that advises the government on health issues facing the British people and how the situation can be improved.

The decline of child obesity in Leeds coincided with a new strategy introduced by the city council in 2009 that focuses on families with preschool children in the poorest areas of the city. The strategy is called HENRY [Health Exercise Nutrition for the Really Young], an initiative developed by Rudolf and her colleagues for children under the age of five. HENRY provides parents and families a wide range of support during the early years in a child's life, including workshops, programs, resources and online help.

Graph showing the levels of child obesity in Leeds, England over a period of eight years  (Credit: Bar Ilan University)

Israel does not buck the global trend like Leeds. According to statistics from Israel's Health Ministry, one in five children are obese or overweight by the time they start first grade, a number that rises to one in three by seventh grade.

In an effort to address the growing problem, the ministry brought HENRY to Israel in 2014. A team of four professionals was sent to Oxford to learn the methods and approach of HENRY, enabling them to train nurses, dietitians and social workers who work directly with the families participating in the program. Parents also received specialist training to help aid their children.

HENRY has been translated into Hebrew and Arabic and has been tested in a number of Israeli cities including Safed, Kiryat Yam, Ramla, Yeruham and Dimona.

Known in Hebrew as "Efshari bari mishpachti" (A Healthy Family is Possible) the program is aimed at families with children under the age of three, and is under the stewardship of Prof. Orna Baron-Epel of the University of Haifa.  

Plans are currently being considered to extend the program to the Israel's kupot holim (healthcare services).

It remains to be seen whether Israel can be as successful as Leeds in confronting the issues of child obesity, but Rudolf contends that investment in the lifestyle of young children will provide the best results to combat child obesity. "If we are going to make a difference, we must start at a young age, before the onset of obesity. This can reduce the impact of poor lifestyle later on," she said.

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