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Childhood obesity reaches highest levels in England since the start of the pandemic

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Children eating

Levels of obesity in children have increased to a record high in both Reception (age 4 to 5) and Year 6 (age 10 to 11) since the start of the pandemic according to new data released by NHS Digital.

According to the report across the country obesity in Year 6 has increased from 21.0% in the period 2019/20 to 25.5.% in 2020/21, while in Reception, it had risen from 9.9% to 14.4%.

The data sample used by the NHS shows that boys are more likely to be affected by obesity. 14.8% of boys were found to have been obese in Reception in comparison to 14.1% of girls, while 29.2% of boys in Year 6 were noted as being obese in comparison to 21.7% of girls.

Speaking at the ‘Taking effective steps to understand and address childhood obesity’ webinar at Food Matters Live today, Professor of Health Psychology, Jane Ogden, spoke of the importance of being a good role model as a parent to tackle the quickly developing issue of obesity in the home.

“Parenting is all about being subtle, it’s not about putting down black and white rules,” she said.

Some of her advice to inspire more healthy eating in children included managing the home environment. She asked parents to only buy what they would want their children to eat, as well as encouraging them to eat with their children at the dinner table to make a meal more of an experience and show them that they eat fruit and vegetables regularly, and most importantly, that they enjoy eating them.

“Don’t diet. Like yourself and like others and make clear you know what a healthy diet is and what a healthy lifestyle is,” she added.

One significant result from the NHS data also revealed that child obesity was twice as prevalent in more deprived communities than least deprived communities. In Reception, there were 12.5% more obese children in more deprived areas whilst in Year 6, the figure is 19.5%.

Ogden responded to these statistics adding: “The biggest problem underlying childhood obesity is poverty. It is a massive political issue which needs to be tackled”.

Ogden also noted the importance of schools in stepping in to provide proper healthy meals for children who cannot access it at home through initiatives such as breakfast clubs.

“The school has to give them the right foods in the first place,” she said. “Schools need to be funded to do this properly, lots of schools are just reheating ready meals.”

Dr Julia Zakrzewski-Fruer from the University of Bedford also said: “We need to make it easier for people to pick healthier foods, to educate them and make them aware of it.”

“Why is it the most processed unhealthy food is the cheapest? It makes no sense?”

According to Zakrzewski-Fruer, the public is still struggling to understand what healthy and unhealthy foods are, especially when it comes to breakfast foods. She says that while processed foods tend to be more harmful than sugary foods as they cause a bigger spike in glucose levels, due to their higher glycaemic index, parents will still be more likely to buy a cereal lower in sugar than GI. “There needs to be more education around this and we do need to market more healthy options,” she says.

She also added: “Behavioural specialists should get involved to help parents think about health [and] instil is as a priority in their lives.”

A recent study by the University of East Anglia and Social Care Partners has found a link between children’s dietary habits and their mental health.

The research, commissioned by the Public Health department of Norfolk County Council and the Norfolk Safeguarding Children Board, found that secondary school pupils who regularly eat more fruit and vegetables enjoy better wellbeing, and children who ate their five a day or more, were more likely to have better mental health.


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