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Leeds is bucking the trend in obesity among children with rates among four and five year olds declining significantly since 2009, while similar cities and England have shown no change, finds research published in the journal Pediatric Obesity. The study highlights that the reduction in obesity has been seen primarily among the most disadvantaged children in the city.

The project was a collaboration set up by Professor Mary Rudolf, Bar Ilan University in Israel while on sabbatical with Oxford University, the national children’s charity HENRY and Leeds’ Public Health (Children and Families) Adults and Health Directorate.

In 2009, Leeds launched a local obesity strategy which focused heavily on preschool children. The city has been working with HENRY to deliver training to health visitors and children centres practitioners and to offer a range of programmes for parents and young children in community settings.

This is helping families with young children, particularly in more disadvantaged areas of the city, adopt a healthier lifestyle.

The research team looked at national data collected through the National Child Measurement Programme between 2009 and 2017. It shows that among children starting school, Leeds is challenging national trends in two key areas - lower levels of obesity overall with a particular improvement among the most deprived children in the city.

Obesity levels fell from 9.4% to 8.8% in four-to-five year olds, while levels remained unchanged in similar cities (9.8%) and for England as a whole (9.5% to 9.4%). The reduction primarily affected the most deprived children in the Leeds, with levels falling from 11.5% to 10.5%. Affluent children benefited too. 

9,675 children aged four to five were measured in 2016/17, and the reduction in obesity equates to over 600 fewer children being obese in the most recent school year for which statistics were available.

In older children, prevalence of obesity was unchanged in Leeds overall but increased by 1.4% in deprived areas, compared with a 1.3% increased in comparable cities and a 1% increase across England.

The data was analysed by Professors Rafael Perera and Susan Jebb in Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.

By analysing data using five-year rolling time periods we can be confident that this is a real trend and not one rogue data point. We’ve also been able to compare Leeds with a group of other cities that are broadly matched, as well as with England as a whole and only Leeds seems to have achieved this sort of reduction.
Professor Rafael Perera, Director of Medical Statistics, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

The reduction in the rate of obesity in children living in the most deprived parts of Leeds is startling, whereas across the country, the gap between children living in richer and poorer areas is getting wider, sowing the seeds for long-term health inequalities. It’s great to see that Leeds has joined a small group of cities worldwide which seem to be making real progress in tackling obesity, but there is still much more to do and this kind of local action needs to be complemented by national level policies to support a healthier diet.
Professor Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford.

Obesity affects children’s health and wellbeing in both the short and longer term. Children who are obese report reduced self-esteem, bullying and stigma. As obesity typically continues into adulthood, the long-term risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer is also  increased.

Leeds adopted a citywide child obesity strategy in 2008 with HENRY training and family programmes at its core. Based on evidence, HENRY supports families with young children to adopt and maintain healthier lifestyles. Practitioners working with young families were all trained to support families to provide a healthy start in life and programmes for parents and young children were delivered in community settings.
Kim Roberts, CEO, Henry

This research is great evidence to use as we play our part in helping children and adults live longer, healthier lives. With national data showing one in ten children are obese by the time they start school and two thirds remaining obese when they leave primary school, we’re delighted to be making positive progress in Leeds. Obesity typically affects a higher rate of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, with double the chance of being obese. This good news needs further research to help us understand exactly how the improved rates have been achieved.
Dr Ian Cameron, Director of Public Health at Leeds City Council.

Read more:

Observational analysis of disparities in obesity in children in the UK: Has Leeds bucked the trend?
Mary Rudolf, Rafael Perera, Di Swanston, Janice Burberry, Kim Roberts, Susan Jebb.
Pediatric Obesity 2019

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Opinions expressed are those of the authors and not of Oxford University. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.