By Michael Kahn
Thu May 15, 2008
France is the first EU country to report a leveling off of childhood obesity rates, suggesting that healthier diet programs and a ban on vending machines in schools is paying off, researchers said on Thursday.
The findings from two separate studies of school-age children signal a shift in France after decades of increase, researchers told the 2008 European Congress on Obesity.
“The rates of children who are overweight are undergoing an overall stabilization in France among all socio-economic backgrounds,” said Sandrine Lioret, an epidemiologist at the French Food Safety Agency, who led one of the studies.
Obesity is a major problem worldwide that increases the risk later in life of type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease. The World Health Organization classifies around 400 million people as obese, including 20 million children under age 5.
Many Western governments — where the obesity problem is greatest — have adopted programs in recent years to promote healthier diets and lifestyles to keep children from growing up to be overweight and obese.
The French findings are important because they show that government policies are a potential weapon in the fight against childhood obesity, said Tim Lobstein, a director of the International Obesity Task Force in London.
But he cautioned that only time would tell whether the French results are a one-off blip or part of a long-term trend.
“The tidal wave (of obesity) is continuing to surge in most European countries,” he said. “We are seeing that wave roll on through to adulthood.”
France is about in the middle when it comes to European childhood obesity rates, with the lowest seen in Scandinavia and the highest in poorer nations in Southern Europe, the researchers said.
In one of the studies, Lioret’s team at the French Food Safety Agency showed no statistically significant change in the prevalence of obesity rates among randomly-selected school children age 3 to 17 in surveys taken eight years apart.
The other research from the French National Institute for Health Surveillance found that the number of obese children aged 7 to 9 had remained steady at around 18 percent in 2000 and 2007.
Government policies, a growing awareness of the dangers of obesity and the fact that children are eating less all seem to be playing a role, the researchers said.
One worry, though, is that even as the overall rate has flattened, poor children were up to three times more likely to be obese compared to wealthier children, they added.