Has Leeds Bucked the Trend for Rising Childhood Obesity?

Peter Russell

July 17, 2019

Parliamentarians have heard how one English city could have bucked the trend for growing rates of childhood obesity through a focus on preventative measures involving pre-school children in deprived areas.

An analysis, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity , focused on an 8 year period since Leeds introduced the HENRY (Health, Exercise, and Nutrition for the Really Young) programme devised by Prof Mary Rudolf from the Azrieli Faculty of Medicine of Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

The strategy, created by Prof Rudolf while she was working in the UK, aims to train community and health professionals to work more effectively with parents to change the home environment and create a healthier lifestyle.

Data From the National Child Measurement Programme

For the study, Prof Rudolf and colleagues analysed the prevalence of obesity for reception classes (aged 4 to 5 years of age) and year 6 (aged 10 to 11 years) using data from the National Child Measurement Programme.

Data for Leeds was compared to that from England as a whole, and areas defined as being Leeds' closest sociodemographic comparators, which included Sheffield, Liverpool, County Durham, Swindon, and Medway.

Trends in the prevalence of obesity amongst children in Leeds differed significantly from the city's closest statistical neighbours, and for England as a whole, the authors reported.

The largest difference was seen in reception classes where obesity prevalence fell significantly from 9.4% to 8.8%, representing a 6.4% reduction in the proportion of children with obesity. That equated to around 625 fewer reception children with obesity in Leeds in 2016 to 2017.

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

Notably, reduction in the prevalence of obesity was mainly seen amongst the most disadvantaged populations in the city which saw a reduction from 11.5% to 10.5%. However, affluent areas also experienced a fall, from 6.8% to 6.0%.

'We Must Start at a Young Age'

"If we are going to make a difference we must start at a young age, before the onset of obesity," commented Prof Rudolf. "This can reduce the impact of poor lifestyle later on."

The HENRY programme, which has been adopted in areas throughout England, but not in the rest of the UK, focuses on offering babies and young children a healthy start, including support for breastfeeding, improving nutrition, emotional wellbeing, parenting skills, oral health, and a more active lifestyle.

It claims that 97% of families who join a HENRY family programme lead a healthier lifestyle by the programme's end.

The observational nature of the study did not allow the researchers to say whether or not the programme had contributed to Leeds' success at reducing obesity levels among primary school children. However, they concluded that "the obesity strategy in Leeds merits further exploration to understand the factors that may have led to its success in reducing the prevalence of obesity and narrowing social inequalities, and to compare this with approaches taken in other cities".

Prof Rudolf presented the findings to the All Party Parliamentary Food and Health Forum at Westminster.

Observational analysis of disparities in obesity in children in the UK: Has Leeds bucked the trend? Rudolf M et al, Pediatric Obesity. Paper .

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