One in five children born in the UK at the beginning of the new century was obese by the age of 11, the latest evidence from a long-term study has suggested.
It represents a “sharp increase” in the number who were obese at the age of seven, according to the fifth Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) of more than 13,000 children born between 2000 and 2002 to be published by the Institute of Education tomorrow.
Dr George Rae, who works in Whitley Bay, North Tyneside, said: “Unfortunately childhood obesity is in reality now an epidemic and, over and above the physical consequences, it has a massive impact on a child’s emotional health with a feeling of low self-esteem which can give a lower quality of life. With the study showing that there is a clear linkage between a child’s weight at age 11 years and the parent’s level of education it is further disconcerting that so many of the children in our region children will be starting off in life with such a huge disadvantage as the North East is near the top of the league in health inequalities.”
Dr Roxanne Connelly, who analysed the data, said the data indicates that children in the overweight category aged seven were “slowly creeping” into the obese category by the time they were 11.
The analysis found the proportion of “children of the new century” who were classified as obese jumped from 13% at age seven to 20% at age 11.
Researchers also said there is a “clear link” between children’s weight at age 11 and their parents’ level of education.
Twenty-five per cent of boys and girls whose parents had no educational qualifications were obese compared to 15% of children who had at least one parent with a degree.
The data also found that children with overweight mothers were more likely to also be overweight, suggesting that children are copying their behaviour.
Slimming World believes that new figures from MCS demonstrating a link between the weight of mother and child provides further proof of the need for a whole-family approach to helping people to manage their weight in a healthy way.
Julie Bhabra, Slimming World Consultant for Gateshead groups in Whickham, Lobley Hill and Dunston, said: “These latest figures are yet further proof that the key to tackling obesity lies not with surgery, but with a whole-family approach that educates and supports mums, dads and children about healthy lifestyles including healthy eating and being more active.
“The Government needs to implement a national standard for the training of health and education professionals to help them tackle obesity by recognising when to discuss the issue of weight with families in a sensitive and skilled way and be informed of and familiar with the options of where to signpost patients and pupils for advice and support in making healthy lifestyle changes.
Children who are overweight or obese face an increased risk of many health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes and is also associated with psychological problems such as low self-esteem and depression.
Dr Connelly said: “One of the key issues we now need to focus on is why there was such a sharp increase in overweight and obesity among the MCS children between ages seven and 11.
“The number who were either overweight or obese rose from 25% at age seven to 35% at age 11.
“One thing we did find was that a lot of children who were overweight at age seven were slowly becoming obese so it could be a creeping problem.
“Only a small number of overweight children aged seven moved down to a healthy weight.”
She added: “These findings highlight the value of the Millennium Cohort Study for addressing issues relating to child health and, in particular, for advancing our understanding of the ‘obesity epidemic’.”
Those who were obese at age 11 were less likely than other children to be “completely happy” with the way they looked, the researchers found.
They were also slightly more likely to say they were “not happy at all” with their appearance.
The study has so far collected data from the 13,287 boys and girls and their families at the ages of nine months and three, five, seven and 11 years to analyse their health, schooling and development as well as their parents’ employment and education.
The latest survey of 11-year-olds was carried out by Ipsos MORI between January 2012 and February 2013.
Overall, almost half of the millennium children were classified as overweight or obese in at least one of the four latest surveys.
Dr Ann Hoskins, a director at Public Health England, said: “It is deeply concerning that there is a virtual doubling of obesity rates from reception to the end of primary school, as also shown in our own data, and that it is particularly worse for children from low income households.
“Parents and carers can help their children maintain a healthy weight by following a balanced diet, ensuring portion sizes are not too large and avoiding sugary drinks and sugary or fatty snacks.
“Children also need a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise each day, which can be achieved in one session or through shorter bursts of 10 minute activity.
“PHE are working to help local authorities tackle the environmental causes of obesity.
“Our guidance on the regulation of fast food outlets provides local authorities with recommendations and case studies such as using 400 metre fast food outlet exclusion zones in school areas.
“We are also working with schools to promote whole school approaches that help pupils lead healthier lives.”
Meanwhile, latest figures published today by the Health and Social Care Information Centre back up the theory that rates of obesity among children are highest for those living in the most deprived areas of England.
The report, National Child Measurement Programme: England, 2013-14 school year, shows whether children in state schools in reception and year 6 are categorised as underweight, healthy, overweight or obese due to their body mass index (BMI).
It shows that in 2013-14, obesity prevalence among reception year children attending schools in the most deprived areas was 12%, compared to 6.6% among those in the least deprived areas. For year 6 children, obesity prevalence among children attending schools in the most deprived areas was 24.7%, compared with 13.1% among those in the least deprived areas.
The overall percentage of obese children in reception in 2013-14 was 9.5%, whereas in year 6, the figure was more than double that at 19.1%.
Eustace de Sousa, national lead for children, young people and families at Public Health England, described the figures as “deeply concerning”.
He said: “We know that over a third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese, which makes them much more likely to be overweight or obese as adults and considerably increases their risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other serious health problems.
“Tackling obesity, and in particular childhood obesity, has always been a national priority for PHE.”
“Parents and carers can help their children maintain a healthy weight by following a balanced diet, keeping an eye on portion sizes and limiting sugary drinks and sugary or fatty snacks.
“Change4life offer simple, affordable recipes including family meals for £5 and ideas on small swaps families can make to their diets, like swapping sugary drinks for diet or sugar free versions, water or lower fat milk, to remove excess calories.
“Children also need a minimum of 60 minutes of exercise each day, which can be achieved in one session or through shorter bursts of 10-minute activity.”
The prevelance of obesity was found to be higher for boys. In reception, 9.9% of boys and 9% of girls were classified as obese, while in year 6 the rate was 20.8% for boys and 17.3% for girls.
Kingsley Manning, chair of the Health and Social Care Information Centre, said: “The figures are important to improving understanding of obesity in children. They show a clear difference in levels of obesity depending on where children live, with the most deprived areas of England seeing the highest prevalence.
“This information will be of use nationally by policy makers and locally by health professionals and organisations in the commissioning of services, as well as in raising awareness of the importance of a healthy lifestyle among families.”
The Journal launched its Great North Fitness Revolution campaign years ago to encourage people of all ages, shapes and sizes to keep active through regular exercise and by adopting a good diet to help reduce obesity levels in the North East.