Nobody is born overweight. At school age, however, one in five children in Germany weighs too much. Every twentieth person is clinically obese. Ten years ago there were half as many. A research group at the University of Mainz is investigating when exactly our children get fat.
The working group around sports medicine professor Simon used data from, a long-term study by the Robert Koch Institute on the health of children in Germany. They looked at the height and weight of over 15,000 children and adolescents aged 2-18 years. The result is surprising.
It was previously believed that the critical period for excessive weight gain was puberty. The data show something completely different: from the age of nine, the overweight rate remains relatively stable at 23%. The psychological pressure of growing up hardly plays a role in weight. The decisive age is much earlier, namely 7 years. This is where the largest increase in the rate of overweight children is found, for both boys and girls, across all population groups.
So much for the data. What exactly happens at this age that makes the children gain weight? It would be obvious to look for the reason in the school environment. The transition from kindergarten to elementary school, from being allowed to play to having to learn, is a big change. Another possible suspect, at least in all-day schools, would be the food in the school canteen. But this is where the numbers from twenty years ago come into play: At that time, there was no increase in the obesity rate during the first year after starting school. The conditions in the school classes have not changed significantly since then. The domestic environment has changed. Should it be the technical innovations that make the children fat? Or the ready-made meals that are increasingly being served when both parents are working and nobody has time to cook?
The results from Mainz do not say why German children become overweight. But they show that health education in school is already too late for many. The foundations for good eating habits must be laid in kindergarten.