According to researchers, tens of thousands of children in England who became overweight or obese during the pandemic may face long-term health consequences. Obesity rates among 10 and 11-year-olds rose sharply during the pandemic and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The researchers argue that measures aimed at children under five are needed to tackle childhood obesity. The government has stated that it is taking strong action to encourage healthier food choices.
Factors such as a prolonged absence from school, lack of physical activity, and unhealthy eating habits have been attributed to the rise in childhood obesity during Covid restrictions. The proportion of overweight and obese Year 6 primary school children increased from 35.2% to 40.9% between 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. Children from deprived areas were disproportionately affected.
The researchers utilized BMI data from the government's National Child Measurement Programme, which annually measures and weighs approximately one million Year 6 pupils in England. Although the number of overweight and obese pupils decreased the following year, it remained higher than before the Covid lockdowns. Based on this data, an additional 56,000 children are at greater risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, strokes, arthritis, and certain types of cancer.
The researchers suggest that measures aimed at pre-school children would be more effective in tackling childhood obesity than those focused on older children. They propose changes to food placements in shops, a ban on fast food stores near schools, and increased priority on physical activity in nurseries and pre-schools. Government funding is also needed to address health disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged communities.
Sara Stanner, science director at the British Nutrition Foundation, emphasizes the importance of intervening in early life to tackle childhood obesity. The Department for Health and Social Care states that it is working to tackle obesity across all socio-economic groups, implementing labeling on pre-packed foods and legislation to restrict the placement of unhealthy foods in supermarkets. The government also runs the Healthy Start scheme to encourage healthy diets for families from lower-income households.
The researchers estimate that the additional people living with obesity as a result of the pandemic could cost the UK economy over £8bn, including £800m in healthcare costs. They express concerns that productivity may worsen as a consequence of the rise in childhood obesity. The National Child Measurement Programme, which measures and weighs over 90% of children in the relevant age groups in England, is considered representative of the population.