Experts Issue Baby ‘Obese’ Warning

Overweight babies are being treated at obesity clinics in Wales as an unprecedented ‘epidemic’ grips our children. Ten years ago, it was almost unheard of for children to visit their doctor because of weight problems.

But now Welsh clinicians warn a generation of youngsters will die before their parents unless they dramatically change their lifestyles from being sedentary ‘couch potatoes’ to active, healthy eaters.

Medics have reported treating one-year-olds, who are overeating “virtually from birth”, toddlers aged three who are as heavy as 10-year-olds and under 10s as large as adult women.

Jacqui Lowden, a paediatric dietician at the Children’s Hospital for Wales in Cardiff, said: “There is an epidemic, there is no doubt. Thirteen years ago, it would have been a rarity to have a child referred because he or she was obese. These days, the majority of children referred to us are referred because they are overweight. I see two or three each week. And then of course there are the children whom we are not seeing.

“The youngest obese child I’ve seen was a three-year-old who came in weighing as much as a 10-year-old should. I’m not talking about a little bit of weight gain or puppy fat, but serious obesity that will have a serious impact upon their health in the future. We are looking at a generation of children who are going to die before their parents.”

Dr Ian Millington, a retired specialist GP of 35 years in Swansea, goes even further, saying the problem starts from the day they are born.

“Some babies are fat from birth. You do not see it so much in breast-fed babies as in youngsters who are formula-fed and introduced to solids early. I have seen babies at a year old who are significantly overweight. We need to educate mothers before they give birth,” he said.

Liz Foden, chief dietician at Ysbyty Gwynedd in Bangor, has seen eight-year-olds weighing as much as eight stone – the same as a slim adult woman.

She said: “It’s certainly a great concern. We are certainly seeing increasing numbers of increasingly heavy children. We want to prevent these problems rather than be dealing with them in secondary care, but it’s very difficult because the problem is so widespread in society. I’m not sure we have got any answers, there are no magic diets.”

In North East Wales, Wrexham Maelor Hospital now only treats the most serious of cases by prescribing diet changes and recommending exercise. Community dieticians take on the rest.

Kate Harrod-Wild, senior paediatric dietician there, said: “Obesity is an increasing problem. At Wrexham Maelor Hospital we have had to limit the number of overweight children who come to us because we were being overwhelmed. I see around six children in a morning and maybe three or four of those will be overweight.

“When you consider there are so many other problems children can have, that is an awful lot. It is a huge issue. Around a quarter of three-year-olds are overweight. And you can only assume things are going to get worse for them.”

By the time these youngsters reach adulthood, Dr Millington says obesity has already taken a toll on their health.

“Quite apart from the money being poured into promotions to slow down the obesity epidemic, we know that obesity increases chances of having heart disease, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. The impact will be tremendous on our health service. We’re starting to see younger and younger people coming in with type-two diabetes, which is a result of being overweight,” he said. “This disease is associated with 60-somethings but we are seeing 20 year-olds coming in. The youngest I have seen was a 16-year-old.

“It is a terrifying worry. It will have an enormous effect on health services. There will be a significant financial impact because of the increased numbers of people needing care.”

The problem, he says, is because obesity is still viewed as a socio-economic issue, related to poverty and parenting, plus the advent of celebrities advertising junk food and the growth of computer games.

“It’s very difficult to intervene because it is not a medical issue until something goes wrong,” he explained. “Until then we’ve no control over the way kids eat. The Government would like it if we could cure it but I don’t think we can. The evidence is that obesity in Wales is increasing. Frustratingly, the message does not seem to be getting through. Successive governments have not taken on the food industry. We are often at a stage where we cannot intervene.”

A World Health Organisation survey in 2004 revealed Welsh kids were the second most overweight in Europe and fifth most obese in the world.

The 2001-02 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children survey, published in June 2004, found that by 15, only 39 per cent of boys and 18 per cent of girls in Wales were doing the recommended amount of exercise. It discovered among 13-year-olds 22 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls were overweight and four per cent of boys and two per cent of girls were obese. The study warns the findings may underestimate the scale of the situation.

But mapping the extent of the problem inside Wales is, so far, impossible. Wales on Sunday contacted the National Assembly, every one of Wales’ NHS health trusts and local authorities but there are no regional statistics illustrating childhood obesity.

Professor of epidemiology at Swansea University, Rhys Williams, is set to meet with National Assembly Members this month to discuss compiling new figures.

He said: “We’ve so far been unable to contrast in any meaningful way what the differences between children in Swansea are and, say, children on Anglesey.

“But the Assembly Government is conscious of this and I will be meeting with them. There are some places, like Swansea, where almost all the children are measured in terms of height and weight, but in Gwent it is not possible to get measurements of anything like 100 per cent of children.

“I will be telling them that they will have no way of knowing if they are being successful in tackling obesity unless they sort out this problem.”

The Welsh Assembly has set aside £20m to tackle the concern.

A spokesman said: “We believe it is so important to encourage people to have a good diet and to take regular physical activity from a young age. We are encouraging children to take care of themselves by teaching them valuable health lessons that they can carry through to adulthood through initiatives in schools such as free healthy breakfasts, fruit tuck shops and water coolers.

“Our Cooking Bus will show children, teachers and parents how to cook healthy nutritious foods. Recently, the 100th community food co-operative in Wales opened at Blackwood Primary School, which is run by pupils, and offers affordable fruit and vegetables for people.

“This initiative has won a World Health Organisation award for counteracting obesity.

“Last June, we launched our five-year food and fitness implementation plan for children and young people. Along with this, we are helping to create more opportunities for children to have fun and get extra exercise through our free swimming for young people during the school holidays.”

Sara Reid, spokeswoman at the Children’s Commissioner for Wales office, added: “Obesity is something that we are concerned about, particularly with food and drink companies spending millions on advertising and promoting foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.

“That puts pressure on parents who may find it difficult to encourage their children to eat a healthy diet and that has an impact on future health, with the increased risk of coronary health disease as well as other ailments.”