'Shocking' Rise in Severely Obese Primary School Children

Peter Russell

July 24, 2018

Health campaigners have described as "shocking" figures that show a record number of severely obese children in their last year of primary school in England.

An analysis of measurements since 2006-07 found that severe obesity rates in 2016-17 were at their highest in both boys and girls aged 10 to 11, Public Health England (PHE) said.

The findings also showed health inequalities have continued to widen.

Increasing the Risk of Diabetes and Heart Disease

The statistics were accompanied by a warning that childhood obesity was likely to continue into adulthood and increase the risk of preventable diseases, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

The figures were based on the National Child Measurement Programme which has recorded the height and weight of children in reception class and in year 6 to assess overweight and obesity levels in children within state-maintained primary schools. Heights and weights were measured by trained healthcare professionals in schools and used to calculate a body mass index (BMI) centile.

Severe obesity was defined as BMI on or above the 99.6th percentile for a child’s age and sex.

Analysis of the measurements showed that:

  • 3.33% of girls in year 6 were severely obese in 2016-17, compared with 2.6% in 2006-07

  • 4.78% of boys in year 6 were severely obese in 2016-17, compared with 3.7 in 2006-07

  • When girls and boys are combined, 4.07% were severely obese, compared with 3.17% when records began

The figures also showed an upward trend in the prevalence of obesity and excess weight in both boys and girls aged 10 to 11.

However, prevalence of all types of obesity and excess weight showed a downward trend among boys in reception class. The prevalence of excess weight and overweight continued to rise among girls.

Health Inequalities

There was widening inequality in excess weight, obesity, overweight and severe obesity rates among boys and girls in both reception class and year 6, the figures revealed. These were highest in the most deprived areas, compared to the least deprived, PHE said.

Among boys in year 6, an upward trend was noted in all groups, and in severe obesity for Bangladeshi, Black African, Pakistani and White British boys. Among girls of the same age, there was an upward trend in obesity and excess weight in all groups except Chinese. There was an increase in severe obesity for Black Caribbean, Pakistani and White British girls, the figures showed.

Childhood Obesity Plan

"The rise in severe obesity and widening health inequalities highlight why bold measures are needed to tackle this threat to our children's health," Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said. "These trends are extremely worrying and have been decades in the making – reversing them will not happen overnight."

PHE said it was working with the food industry to reduce sugar content in everyday products by 20% by 2020 and calories by 20% by 2024.

Dr Max Davie, officer for health promotion for the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, commented: "Although shocking, this new data is not surprising. For many years we have been calling for bold action and it appears for these young children, it did not come soon enough.

"The Government's childhood obesity plan is encouraging but if the policies within it are not quickly enacted, more children are going to face a life that's limited in quality and expectancy.

"Obesity is entirely preventable so this new data should be the springboard the Government needs in order to put these policies in place and begin turning around lives."

The charity Diabetes UK has expressed disappointment at the "lack of ambition" in the childhood obesity plan. It said more was needed to reduce childhood obesity rates, including curbs on junk food marketing to children and price promotions on unhealthy foods.


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