AUSTRALIA'S childhood obesity epidemic has finally gone into reverse, according to a study that highlights a small but steady fall in the proportion of preschoolers deemed overweight during the past decade.
Children from poorer families have benefited most from the turnaround, the study of Victorians shows. Although those from wealthier families were more likely to be within the healthy weight range for their age, the figures show the gap halved between 1999 and 2007. Among the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, the prevalence of overweight and obesity fell from 14.2 per cent in 1999 to 13.6 per cent in 2007, while among the least disadvantaged children there was a slight increase, from 11.5 to 12 per cent.
For 3½-year-olds there was a drop from 22.8 to 18.1 per cent for the relatively disadvantaged children, and a more modest fall from 15.8 to 14.3 per cent for the children from wealthiest families.
The study leader, Boyd Swinburn, the director of the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, said the fall began after childhood obesity started to receive attention in the early 2000s.
The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, used more than 200,000 children's weight and height records. It could not assess the reason for the change, but it was possible government healthy eating and exercise programs - including improving the food at childcare centres - might be responsible. But Professor Swinburn cautioned that the 3½-year-olds were more likely than the younger children to have gained excessive weight, 15 per cent versus 12 per cent, and strategies to prevent excessive weight gain were needed. ''The biggest risk with good news like this is people will think it's OK to take the foot off the pedal of promoting healthier lifestyles,'' he said.
The director of weight management services at the Children's Hospital at Westmead, Louise Baur, said it was easier for parents to control children's weight in preschool, but children were subject to more outside influences when they reached school age.