Obesity is twice as prevalent among primary school children living in the most deprived areas of England compared with those in the least deprived areas, new figures showed.
However, obesity levels decreased in both reception and year 6 children in 2022–23 compared with the previous year, NHS Digital reported.
Each year, children in reception (aged 4–5 years) and year 6 (aged 10–11 years) are measured as part of the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), also known as the School Height and Weight Checks. The programme, which began in 2006, provides data on patterns and trends in the prevalence of underweight, healthy weight, overweight, obesity, and severe obesity among children at the start and end of their primary school years.
The latest figures showed that in 2022–23, obesity prevalence in reception classes fell from 10.1% to 9.2% in 2021–22. This was compared with the highest recorded figure of 14.4% during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decrease "signalled a return to prepandemic levels" for this age group, and it resulted in the second lowest level since the programme began.
However, obesity prevalence among year 6 children remained "above prepandemic levels," underlined NHS England. The proportion of year 6 children living with obesity dropped to 22.7% in 2022–23, down from 23.4% in 2021–22 and 25.5% in 2020–21. However, it remained higher than the 2019–20 prepandemic level of 21.0% and was about 30% higher than the 17.5% reported when the programme began.
Boys Weighing More than Girls
"Obesity prevalence in boys is higher than girls for both age groups," NHS England said. For children in reception, obesity prevalence was 9.3% for boys compared with 9.0% for girls. However, there was a much larger gap between boys and girls in year 6, with obesity prevalence at 25.1% for boys and 20.1% for girls.
Some of the data are more reassuring, eg, approximately three out of four (77.5%) children in reception, and three out of five (61.9%) in year 6, had a healthy weight. Specifically, 77% of reception boys were a healthy weight compared with 78.1% of girls.
The proportion of underweight year 6 children rose slightly from 1.5% in 2021–22 to 1.6% in 2022–23.
Deprivation and a North South Divide
Statistics revealed that children living in the poorest areas of the country were twice as likely to be living with obesity compared with their counterparts in more affluent areas. The prevalence of obesity in reception was 12.4% for children from the most deprived backgrounds compared with 5.8% for those from the least deprived areas. That divide persisted by year 6, with prevalences at 30.2% and 13.1%, respectively.
The North East (11.3%), North West (10.1%), and West Midlands (10.1%) had the highest proportion of reception-aged children living with obesity in 2022–23, while it was lowest in the South East (8.0%), East of England (8.1%), and South West (8.2%).
For year 6, the proportion of children living with obesity was highest in the North East (25.8%), West Midlands (25.2%) and in London (24.8%), while it was lowest in the South West (19.4%) and in the South East (19.4%).
The proportion of children living with obesity in 2022–23 was highest for Black children in both reception (13.6%) and year 6 (31.6%), while it was lowest for Chinese children in both reception (4.2%) and year 6 (15.2%).
John Maingay, Director of Policy and Public Affairs at the British Heart Foundation, highlighted that children living with obesity were much more likely to live with obesity as adults, which meant a greater risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases.
He warned that the current childhood obesity rates were still "far too high," despite the small improvements. He urged the government to "move fast" and implement its delayed plans to restrict junk food marketing to children. Maingay also urged ministers to incentivise businesses to produce healthier foods.