Overweight in Danish children linked to social inequality

Nutrition and dietary habits

The prevalence in overweight in children goes down as their parents’ level of education goes up, according to a new study by the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark. The study also shows that the prevalence of overweight among Danish 4-14-year-olds has increased due to an increase in overweight among boys of parents with low educational level.

The National Food Institute has studied the prevalence of overweight among Danish 4-14-year-olds from 2000 to 2008 with a particular focus on socioeconomic differences. The study has shown a 74% higher prevalence of overweight among both boys and girls of parents with low educational level, compared with children of parents with high educational level.

"... initiatives aimed at preventing overweight should target parents with low educational level and their children."
Jeppe Matthiessen

From 2000 to 2008 the proportion of overweight boys aged 4-14 increased from 12.8% to 21.7%, while it stagnated among the girls. The largest increase was observed among 11-14-year-old boys.

”Our study shows that initiatives aimed at preventing overweight should target parents with low educational level and their children.  Such initiatives should have a specific focus on boys in this group, given they have experienced the greatest increase in overweight,” National Food Institute senior adviser Jeppe Matthiessen says.

Level of physical activity differs between boys and girls

While the study does not identify the cause of the increased prevalence in overweight, one possible reason for weight developing differently between the genders could be what boys and girls do with their leisure time.

”We know that boys during the period from 2000-2008 have increased the time spent behind a screen, but they have not increased the time playing sports or exercising. Girls, on the other hand, are spending more time engaged in sports or doing exercise without having increased their screen time,” Jeppe Matthiessen explains.

Another possible reason is that boys are less likely than girls to see themselves as overweight and therefore try to lose weight, because mass media and advertisements do not dictate the same strict ideal regarding a man’s weight.

Serious and long-term problems from overweight

Overweight in children and young people can cause low self-esteem, and in adults it increases the risk of serious illnesses such as type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Overweight children are at increased risk of growing up to be overweight adults compared to children with a healthy weight.

”Intervening as early as possible to help children develop a healthy weight can help give them a better childhood with better self-esteem and help avoid serious health issues in the long run,” Jeppe Matthiessen says.

Read more

The study has been published in an article in the Scandinavian Journal of Public Health: Trends in overweight and obesity in Danish children and adolescents: 2000-2008: Exploring changes according to parental education (pdf).

It has also been presented in an E-article from the National Food Institute: Social ulighed i overvægt blandt børn (pdf) (available in Danish only).

Please also see the press releases from May 3, 2013: Forældres uddannelse har indflydelse på sønnernes kost and from May 25, 2008: Flere overvægtige børn og unge i Danmark (available in Danish only).

The study is based on data from 1849 children who participated in the Danish National Survey of Diet and Physical Activity from 2000-2008.

Parental educational level was chosen as the indicator of a child’s socioeconomic status because studies have shown education to be the strongest and most consistent dimension of socioeconomic status associated with overweight and obesity in children in Western developed countries.