Unhealthy weight control among New Zealand kids

By Amanda Johnson 30/08/2012

A new study just published this month by researchers at the University of Auckland has highlighted concerns about weight control behaviours among New Zealand adolescents, and has identified a number of ‘red flags’ for unhealthy weight loss.

The new findings were published last week (21 August 2012) in the International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity by Dr Jennifer Utter and colleagues from the School of Population Health, University of Auckland.

The researchers collected data as part of a national health and wellbeing survey of secondary school students in New Zealand in 2007. In total 9,107 students aged 13-18 agreed to participate. Results showed that among students who had attempted to lose weight (around half of the children surveyed) 90% were eating less fatty food and 52% were eating fewer sweets.

Of concern, however, was that a significant number of children were adopting unhealthy weight control behaviours in order to reduce their weight; for example vomiting (7.8%), diet pills (3.5%), smoking cigarettes (9%), fasting (12.5%) and skipping meals (31.4%). Students who adopted the more unhealthy weight control behaviours had significantly lower wellbeing scores and higher depression scores.

The authors of this research suggest that as skipping meals and fasting were the most common unhealthy weight control behaviours that routine assessment by clinicians should include screening for meal skipping and fasting.

This is an interesting study, especially in the light of the new Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Children and Young People published by the Ministry of Health earlier this month. The latest figures for the prevalence of obesity show that among 2-14 year olds 20.9% were overweight and a further 8.3% were obese; and among 15-19 year olds 22.1% were overweight and a further 12.6% were obese.

Weight issues are obviously affecting a significant number of New Zealand children and we need to make sure that good healthy strategies are put in place to help these children manage their weight effectively. Children need to be supported with advice based on the Ministry of Health Food and Nutrition Guidelines and Guidelines for Weight Management in Children and Young People. In terms of diet; a healthy diet should be encouraged that is low in saturated fats, sugar, and salt, includes a variety of foods, such as wholegrain cereals, rice, pasta, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Water and milk should replace sugary drinks, and high-energy takeaway foods and snacks should be avoided. Children should also be encouraged to take part in regular moderate-intensity or vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes per day.

This approach should be promoted to all children with weight issues, however, following the publication of this research we all need to keep a particular eye out for ‘red flags’ such as fasting and meal skipping so we can intervene with appropriate help and support.