The Early Bird Study, Exercise, and Waistlines

Disney Aftermath

A sage once said, “There is always enough evidence in the universe to prove anything.” This is certainly true of obesity research, which is rife with controversy. Take, for instance, the Early Bird Study, which started out with the intention of establishing the relationship between childhood obesity and non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus, or NIDDM, or Type II (or Type 2) diabetes. We have mentioned one facet of the Early Bird Study before, how childhood obesity seems to be inherited from the same-sex parent, but there is a lot more to it.

This ongoing study got underway about 10 years ago in Plymouth, England, a city of about 250,000 inhabitants. The researchers started out with a bunch of five-year-olds, with the intention of studying them until age 16. They’re found a number of interesting things along the way. We’ll get back to that.

Hannah Sutter is an English journalist who noticed something strange:

We’ve only started to get really fat since governments started promoting the current low-fat health messages, back in the early Nineties.

This, despite the fact that the average Brit gets about 25% more exercise than she or he did 10 years ago, while eating 20% fewer calories and 20% more fruits and vegetables. (We didn’t check up on this; presumably, the sources of the numbers are given in Sutter’s book.) The point she makes is, something is not making sense here, and Sutter thinks it’s this: While people have been scared away from eating fat, they haven’t been warned enough about the dangers of starch, which is probably worse.

The body’s ability to react to insulin can be impaired. The exact mechanism isn’t clearly understood. Research seems to indicate that there can be a genetic predisposition. Then, overweight and under-activity make it worse. That’s insulin resistance – the various body cells don’t react to the proper amount of insulin like they should. But the pancreas doesn’t understand what’s going on, and tries to compensate by making more insulin. It can even get exhausted, and not make any insulin.

Then, a person is in basically the same situation as someone with Type I diabetes. The difference is, Type 2 is preventable. Sutter bases her complaint on research showing that insulin production in the body is mostly triggered by starch and sugar. Which is why she feels that government-approved levels of carbohydrate intake are hazardous, and we’re not being properly warned about the risk posed by those substances. The over-abundance of insulin usually goes along with an overabundance of tummy fat. Sutter writes,

While calorie-counting tells us how much energy there is in food, it doesn’t distinguish between the effect those foods will have on our insulin response — which dictates how much fat we store in the body.

At the 2006 European Obesity Conference, Sutter heard about several major studies carried out in Europe, showing that exercise doesn’t really affect weight. A study carried out in the U.S. by the World Health Organization showed the same result. So did the Early Bird Study, and apparently this was such heresy that the British government stopped funding the research.

“Watching the waistline” is an old cliché, but its meaning is more than only symbolic. By the way, did you know that most men under-report their waist measurement by a margin of three inches? This is because they measure around the thinnest part of the trunk, like the hips, than where the measurement is supposed to be taken, which is right at the belly-button level.

The body mass index, or BMI, is a number concocted from the ratio between a person’s weight and height. Most studies use it as their measuring tool, but actually, it is the waist measurement that tells the tale. This was explained to Simon Crompton, who then printed it in The Sunday Times.

Professor Jane Wardle says that the waist size is a much purer indication of fatness. For one thing, waist size correlates better with the risk of coronary artery disease in teenagers. Apparently, carrying “junk in the trunk” is not such a bad health harbinger, but stomach girth indicates that the internal organs are packed and encased in fat, which is definitely bad.

So, what leads to a smaller waistline? Why, exercise, of course. As in, physical education classes and activities in schools. It’s a proven fact that in schools that require more physical education hours per week, the kids are smaller around the middle. And this, of course, contradicts the Early Bird Study. Now we’ve got the dueling professors. Crompton presents the other side, having consulted the academic who heads up the Early Bird Study:

Professor Terence Wilkin, from Peninsula Medical School, Plymouth, believes it’s not our environment that determines activity but an in-built activity regulator, and in some children it is set differently from others.

Even though exercise apparently doesn’t affect weight control or the BMI, this doesn’t mean that kids should not be encouraged to exercise, and given every opportunity. Exercise improves the blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and slows the development of insulin resistance. So it’s still good.

Here’s a rather irreverent contribution to the debate, from the BBC’s Richard Vadon:

When you visit schools it’s certainly hard to find these large numbers of overweight kids. Doctor Linda Voss is the coordinator of the Early Bird Study… Put on the spot in a school even her expert eye failed to spot these numbers of fat kids. Like many experts, she thinks it’s our view of normal that has changed. ‘I think I failed to spot the overweight kids because we are so used to seeing overweight kids these days,’ she says.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Big Fat Lies about Britain’s obesity epidemic,”, 02/01/10
Source: “Why gym may fix it,” The Sunday Times, 09/01/07
Source: “The truth about obesity,” BBC News, 11/22/07
Image by meshmar2, used under its Creative Commons license.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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