Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey

The findings of the 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey were released today. There’s been a little media attention, and I guess this will ramp up as the dailies run it and the various ‘stakeholders’ start saying their piece. The results? Depends who you listen to.

To quote a key finding

72 per cent of children surveyed were at a healthy weight; 17 per cent of boys and girls were classified as overweight; 6 per cent were obese; and 5 per cent were found to be underweight.

Interesting stuff. I’ve written previously [1,2] about the exploitation of inadequate data or misleading studies to harass overweight people and everyone else too. The data in the present study can be spun as cause for concern, but I’m happy to look at it more optimistically. 17% of children were classed as overweight. That’s less than one fifth of children. If you include the obese children, that’s a little more than a fifth.

Given the absolute wall of ‘obesity epidemic’ noise we face every week (sometimes every day) in our newspapers and on the television, a finding that approximately one fifth of children are overweight does not leave me reaching for the emergency button. In fact, I’d say the number of chubby kids in my primary school years might not have been particularly different. (I should hunt out the old school class photos!)

I was also heartened to read this finding:

On the days surveyed, 69 per cent of the children met the National Physical Activity Guidelines (at least one hour of moderate to vigorous activity each day).

It could be better. It could be a hell of a lot worse. Almost three quarters of kids are reasonably active, despite having computers and televisions and mobile phones and game machines in their lives (and, presumably, being ferried around in 4WDs).

Measures of dietary intakes were much less positive, though I was surprised that total fat intake was within national guidelines. More depressingly, almost all performance on the various measures (activity, weight, diet) deteriorated with age (the oldest participants were 16 years old).

The survey covered 4000 children and on the face of it the methodology looks reasonable, although self-reported food information isn’t ideal. Nonetheless, the dietary results weren’t good, and it’s unlikely people were exaggerating how unhealthily they were eating. Of more concern is the overrepresentation of rich households (>A$78k pa) and the underrepresentation of poor households (<A$32k pa) in the study.

Most interestingly of all (I saved the juiciest for last), note these observations in the main report (my italics):

  • Underweight and obese children tended to have a lower physical activity level (Pal) than children of normal weight.
  • Obese children tended to report lower energy intakes than children of normal weight.
  • There was found to be no clear association between reported energy intake and level of physical activity.

(report page 2)

All up, this study appears to contribute some useful, clear information which is hard to massively misrepresent (unlike a heap of other studies out there). The demographic imbalance in the sample is unfortunate, and as far as I can see the report omits any demographic breakdown of the data, which seems irresponsible given the common claim that poor families are most likely to be overweight and have a poor diet. The full data are available for further analysis, so I hope we’ll see this gap in analysis addressed.

5 thoughts on “Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey”

  1. Interesting stuff, indeed. I’d also be interested to know whether definitions of obesity and overweight vary between countries and cultures. In France, the same sort of anti-obesity frenzy has hit the media in recent years, mainly by those who bemoan the increasing influence of “American” eating habits on French kids. At any rate, regardless of the strict medical definitions, the French tend to label people as overweight very liberally.

  2. In a book I recently reviewed, the point was made that poorer families tended to have worse diets than the well off because high sugar and fat diets are cheaper than fresh food diets. It gave an example of a dozen doughnuts costing about $2, yet a dozen apples was something like twice that price.

  3. The longitudinal study that my son is part of (life st 3 currently being televised on ABC) found tht living in a poor re was an indication of poor diet rather than the actual wealth of the family. Interesting stuff.
    While I think the word ‘epidemic’ is hyperbole, it saddens me that roughly 20% of children have weight issues. It is a lot.

  4. Hi Dani. Useful info thanks. I have to ask, though, why you think 20% of children being overweight is a problem? The classification of overweight starts at a relatively un-fat level (and is also somewhat contentious for children). Being chubby as a kid (or adult) isn’t in itself a health problem. Eating badly and not engaging in physical activity are far more serious problems, and apply to all weights. There’s little or no evidence of a causal link between (at the very least) mild overweight and health issues. Even the serious data on very overweight subjects appear to give no clear picture about health implications caused by body weight/mass.

  5. It’s the trends in adult weight that concern me Duncan and the lifestyle issues. The first three years have been touted by some research as critical in forming adult eating habits/palette. I know we can’t assume that chubby kids will be overweight adults or that thin kids will be thin adults, we need more concrete knowledge. I wish we had data on previous generations to see if the 20% held true then. I only remember 1 overweight child in my primary school of 80 children and one who was chubby *shrug*.
    It’s also the quality of food and the nature of heavily processed food that bothers me. So not so much the 20% overweight but the whole picture that really bothers me.
    Babble, babble, too tired to be coherent.

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