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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The views of young children in the UK about obesity, body size, shape and weight: a systematic review

Rebecca Rees1*, Kathryn Oliver2, Jenny Woodman3 and James Thomas1

Author Affiliations

1 EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, 18 Woburn Square, London, WC1H 0NR, UK

2 Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health, University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester M13 9PL, UK

3 MRC Centre of Epidemiology for Child Health, UCL-Institute of Child Health, 30 Guilford Street, London WC1N 1EH, UK

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BMC Public Health 2011, 11:188  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-188

Published: 25 March 2011

Abstract

Background

There are high levels of concern about childhood obesity, with obese children being at higher risk of poorer health both in the short and longer terms. Children's attitudes to, and beliefs about, their bodies have also raised concern. Children themselves have a stake in this debate; their perspectives on this issue can inform the ways in which interventions aim to work.

This systematic review of qualitative and quantitative research aimed to explore the views of UK children about the meanings of obesity and body size, shape or weight and their own experiences of these issues.

Methods

We conducted sensitive searches of electronic databases and specialist websites, and contacted experts. We included studies published from the start of 1997 which reported the perspectives of UK children aged 4-11 about obesity or body size, shape or weight, and which described key aspects of their methods. Included studies were coded and quality-assessed by two reviewers independently.

Findings were synthesised in two analyses: i) an interpretive synthesis of findings from open-ended questions; and ii) an aggregative synthesis of findings from closed questions. We juxtaposed the findings from the two syntheses. The effect of excluding the lowest quality studies was explored. We also consulted young people to explore the credibility of a subset of findings.

Results

We included 28 studies. Instead of a focus on health, children emphasised the social impact of body size, describing experiences and awareness of abuse and isolation for children with a greater weight. Body size was seen as under the individual's control and children attributed negative characteristics to overweight people. Children actively assessed their own size; many wished their bodies were different and some were anxious about their shape.

Reviewers judged that children's engagement and participation in discussion had only rarely been supported in the included studies, and few study findings had depth or breadth.

Conclusions

Initiatives need to consider the social aspects of obesity, in particular unhelpful beliefs, attitudes and discriminatory behaviours around body size. Researchers and policy-makers should involve children actively and seek their views on appropriate forms of support around this issue.