Claims that Britain is going through an “epidemic,” of childhood obesity are not supported by the evidence, according to a group which researches social and lifestyle issues.

According to the Social Issues Research Centre, which is partly funded by the food industry, “beliefs that childhood obesity is at epidemic levels and is rising exponentially are no more than unsupported speculation.” The centre based its view on a study of the Department of Health’s annual Health Survey for England 2003, which was published in December. “The Health Survey for England provides grounds for a serious re-think,” it said.

Their analysis showed body mass index trends broadly flat for both boys and girls aged under 16 years in the period 1995 – 2003, with very modest increases in average BMI of around 0.5 for boys and 0.6 for girls. They also said that the UK government’s standard for assessing child obesity overstates the problem, giving a figure of 15.5% obesity, compared with the 6.75% given by the international standard.

“There is no indication of any significant change in the number of children with chronic illnesses, including type II diabetes, over the past 9 years,” the centre said. “The absence of any evident deterioration in the health status of children supports the conclusion that children are not becoming fatter as fast as is widely believed.”

More young men and women in the 16-24 age group have a ‘desirable’ BMI of between 20 and 25 than any other BMI category. Men of this age are twice as likely to be underweight as they are to be obese.

“We do no service to the people at risk of obesity-related morbidities in our society by ‘hyping’ their plight, exaggerating their numbers or diverting limited educational, medical and financial resources away from where the problems really lie” the centre’s report said. “Banning advertising of ‘junk food’ to children and similar measures may be popular in some quarters, but they are unlikely to impact much on the generation of people in their 50s and 60s – those with vastly higher rates of overweight and obesity than children and young people.”