New Zealand preschoolers have resisted the global obesity trend, with an important new study showing rates of child obesity continuing to decline across Aotearoa.

The study, led by researchers for A Better Start National Science Challenge, looked at measurements of over 400,000 children, which were taken between 2011 and 2019 at their B4 School Check (age 4 years).

In this time the percentage of children who fell into the overweight, obesity and extreme obesity categories decreased from 34.3% to 29.4% – a drop of almost 5%.

Importantly, the researchers found that the decreasing rates of overweight and obesity were across all ethnicities, including Māori and Pasifika. There also appeared to be a “closing of the gap” between the most deprived and least deprived communities, with a larger decrease in the rates of overweight and obesity in children from highly deprived areas in New Zealand.

The declines were across the board, occurring in most regions in New Zealand, including urban and rural areas, and across genders.

“The findings are promising,” says Dr Lisa Daniels, the lead author on the paper, which has been published in the International Journal of Obesity. “But there is still work to do.

“While we are seeing these reassuring declining trends in this group, there is still a large proportion of children with high BMI (overweight and obesity). We now need to see what is happening with our younger tamariki – those under four years old – where there is currently a lack of national data.”

Exactly why obesity rates have declined so widely across New Zealand – bucking international trends – is now the focus of another major study, funded by A Better Start National Science Challenge.

Researchers are exploring whether changes in policy, behaviour or the environment that occurred at a national level may have impacted preschool obesity.

Professor Wayne Cutfield, Director of A Better Start National Science Challenge, says several possibilities could be contributing to the declines, including a reduction in maternal smoking during pregnancy, and affordable access to early childhood education for 3-4 year olds – where the curriculum as a focus on nutrition and physical activity.

There is also potentially more awareness and a change in attitude regarding obesity prevention in the population, says Professor Cutfield.

The healthcare costs of overweight and obesity-related conditions in NZ was estimated at $624 million in 2006, or 4.4 per cent of all health spending. It is now estimated to be around $1 billion – underpinning the critical need for research and investment into reducing childhood obesity and ensuring better outcomes for children in New Zealand.

A Better Start National Science Challenge’s mission is to improve the lives of young New Zealanders, with a research focus on three key themes: healthy weight, early literacy and mental health and resilience.

“With one in three New Zealand children overweight or obese, the earlier we intervene and ensure children have a healthy weight, the better their long-term health and wellbeing,” says Professor Cutfield.

The Challenge is a 10-year collaborative research programme, funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE).


Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

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