Obesity among children soars after lockdown

·5-min read
Obesity rates among children rose significantly over lockdown (PA) (PA Archive)
Obesity rates among children rose significantly over lockdown (PA) (PA Archive)

Obesity levels among younger children rose significantly after lockdown, figures suggest.

Data from NHS Digital show that almost one in seven children start primary school obese.

And more than a quarter are obese by the time they finish primary school.

Figures from the National Child Measurement Programme, which measures obesity prevalence among school-aged pupils in reception class and Year 6, show that obesity rates increased in both year groups by around 4.5 percentage points between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the highest rise since the programme began.

Among reception-aged children, those aged four and five, the rates of obesity rose from 9.9% in 2019/20 to 14.4% in 2020/21.

And among Year 6 pupils, those in their last year of primary school aged 10 and 11, obesity prevalence increased from 21% in 2019/20 to 25.5% in 2020/21.

Boys had a higher prevalence of obesity than girls for both age groups.

Children living in poorer areas were twice as likely to be obese than those living in wealthier neighbourhoods.

The proportion of children who were a healthy weight dropped between 2020/21 and 2019/20.

Among Year 6 pupils, 57.8% were deemed to be a healthy weight, down from 63.4% the year previously.

Among reception children, seven in 10 (71.3%) were classed as having a healthy weight, down from 76.1% the year previously.

The proportion of all children who were either overweight or obese was 27.7% in reception and 40.9% in Year 6.

We need to break the junk food cycle to improve children’s health

Caroline Cerny, Obesity Health Alliance

Commenting on the figures, Caroline Cerny, lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “This new data highlights the need for a relentless drive on improving children’s health.

“In particular we need an intense focus on closing the gap between the most and least deprived to ensure every single child has an equal chance to grow up healthy.

“There are several aspects of the pandemic that are likely to have contributed to this increase in child obesity levels.

“But it is very clear from data showing increases in sales of confectionery, biscuits and fast food that junk food companies used the opportunity to keep their unhealthy products centre stage in children’s minds.

“We need to break the junk food cycle to improve children’s health.

“New restrictions on junk food marketing, such as the 9pm watershed on advertising, is a positive move. Next we need the Government to take stronger action to improve everyday food and drink with a levy on food companies to incentivise them to improve.”

Nikki Joule, policy manager at Diabetes UK said “This new data, which shows that two fifths of children aged 10-11 in England are living with overweight and obesity is hugely concerning, and it underlines why urgent action is needed to improve children’s health.”

Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This sharp increase in obesity levels across childhood is alarming.

“While lockdown may have been a key factor, we mustn’t assume that this year’s results are an aberration since there may be other factors, including mental health difficulties, which will take time to address.

“One factor we must focus on is poverty. Every year we see the gap between the most and least deprived children widen.

“Obesity is increasingly a disease of poverty in the UK and any attempts to address this problem therefore need to be focused on these groups and the causes for their increased vulnerability.”

The figures come as the head of the NHS in England warned that many vulnerable young people have struggled with weight gain during the coronavirus pandemic.

Amanda Pritchard said that the crisis has “shone a harsh light” on obesity.

This early intervention scheme aims to prevent children and young people enduring a lifetime of ill-health

Amanda Pritchard, NHS England

The NHS has launched a pilot scheme which will see 15 new specialist clinics care for severely obese children and their families.

About a thousand children aged two to 18 will benefit from the services each year, which will offer diet plans, mental health treatment and coaching.

They will have access to dietitians, psychologists, specialist nurses, social workers, youth workers and a children’s doctor.

Launching the pilot, Ms Pritchard said: “The pandemic has shone a harsh light on obesity – with many vulnerable young people struggling with weight gain during the pandemic.

“Left unchecked, obesity can have other very serious consequences, ranging from diabetes to cancer.

“This early intervention scheme aims to prevent children and young people enduring a lifetime of ill-health.

“The NHS Long Term Plan committed to take more action to help children and young people with their physical and mental health and these new services are a landmark moment in efforts to help them lead longer, healthier and happier lives.”

Last year, Boris Johnson launched the Government’s anti-obesity strategy and was said to have become passionate about the issue after his severe bout of Covid.

It included plans for a ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm and ending deals such as buy-one-get-one-free on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat.

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