Fat Britain: where do the fattest kids live?

London has a high prevalence of childhood obesity.

Photograph: Getty Images

Figures show that child obesity has become a leading cause for the nation’s growing waistline. It has increased the risk of ill health, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and premature deaths in England, over the past year. With British kids becoming less physically active in schools, the UK could be facing a serious national health crisis in almost a decade’s time.

There are many factors that contribute to obesity during the early stages of life, such as birth weight, obesity in one or both parents and sitting down watching too much TV. Experts have suggested that unconventional aspects of childhood development influence the weight of a child later on in life.

When defining obesity, there are many ways that it can be classified. The most widely used method of body mass index (BMI) measures a person’s health in relation to their weight. It determines whether you are a healthy weight for your height. You can use the BMI healthy weight calculator to work out your score or your child’s.

When measuring and interpreting the BMI of an individual child and population of children, it is necessary to check that the age and sex appropriate growth references are used correctly. This determines whether the acquired weight status is accurate or not.

You can only be identified as obese if your BMI score is of 30 or above. Anything over 40 is often referred to as ‘morbid obesity’. At times this measure is not always accurate, and in some cases other measures are used instead. For instance, waist circumference and the waist-hip ratio. This is the waist circumference divided by the hip circumference, which provides an indication of the distribution of fat on the body.

The Health Survey for England shows that nearly a third (31%) of children aged 2 to 15 are obese, and this is still increasing. Younger generations are now obese at earlier ages, staying obese for longer and becoming overweight adults. Though there are various means to observe obesity, it is important to first understand why and how it is measured.

Usually the underlying factors such as the easy access to calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods, our environment, behaviour, culture and genetics gives context to our child obesity epidemic. Looking into childhood obesity amongst ethnic minorities, male and female alike, will also provide alternative results and anomalies.

Kings College London have carried out a study of electric records over the past 20 years. It has been published online in the Archives of Disease in Childhood. To track any changes in the prevalence of overweight and obesity over these two decades, the study has scrutinised the anonymised electric health records of more than 370,500 children, aged 2 to 15. They have found that a third of children in England are overweight.

The Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England provides high-level analysis of the prevalence of obesity amongst children in Reception (aged 4–5 years) and Year 6 (aged 10–11 years), measured in state schools in England in the school year 2015–16. More specifically, according to NHS Digital, the prevalence has risen from 9.1 per cent in 2014–15 to 9.3 per cent in 2015–16 for children in Reception, and from 19.1 per cent to 19.8 per cent for those in Year 6. Unfortunately, this has identified many dissimilarities and inequalities when it comes to observing the risk of childhood obesity in UK boroughs. Today, the burden is falling hard on those children from low income-backgrounds.

A child’s quality of life is compromised when their diet, and physical activity is neglected at a key stage of their development. Photograph: Rex Features

Obesity rates are highest for children from the most deprived areas of England. These children are twice as likely to be obese in comparison to their most well off counterparts. The deprivation gap as measured by the variances in obesity prevalence, between the most and least deprived, has increased overtime.

The boroughs with the most obese children have contributed to the current expenditure the country accumulates overtime. It was estimated that the NHS spent £5.1 billion in England, on overweight and obesity-related illnesses in 2014/15. If the economic costs are great, how can more money be put towards the police, fire service and judicial system combined? Child obesity has placed such a huge economic burden on the UK, which has left some health experts believing that we will soon see parents outliving their children.

So where do the fattest kids live?

In London, 9 out of 32 local authorities are above average numbers of 4–5 year olds struggling with child obesity. Barking and Dagenham have the greatest number of obese children aged 4–5 between 2015–2016. Out of the top six boroughs with the highest number of prevalence, there was an average of 12 percent. This shows that many boroughs are not adhering to the governmental provisions, and support available.

Of the 32 local authorities, Barking and Dagenham are again have the greatest prevalent cases of child obesity with children aged 10–11 between 2015–2016. Why is this the case? What can be done to combat this in 2017? With Greenwich being not too far off in both age groups, it is easy to see borough inequalities and lifestyles of these children.

Long term, and sustainable change are necessary if the rate of childhood obesity is to significantly reduce, in England. Within the next ten years there is a confidence that things will begin to stabilise and change. There are various government led schemes and plans that have made this issue a priority and concern. They also respect consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, a child/s need to eat.

In addition to the Government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), the government has also introduced the Childhood Obesity Plan: A Plan for Action to increase the proportion of children leaving primary school with a healthy weight and to reduce levels of excess weight in adults. The launch of this plan represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word.

With the mixture of scientific rationale and implementation, the plan details out the key actions required to prevent obesity in children. It aims to:

  1. Reduce added sugars by 40% by 2020 by reformulating (similar programme to salt).

2. Cease all forms of marketing of ultra-processed, unhealthy foods and drinks to children.

3. Disassociate physical activity with obesity via banning junk food sports sponsorships.

4. Reduce fat in ultra-processed foods, particularly saturated fat — 15% reduction by 2020.

5. Limit the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks as well as reducing portion size 6.

6. Incentivise healthier food and discourage drinking of soft drinks by planning to introduce a sugar tax.

7. Remove responsibility for nutrition from the Department of Health and return it back to an independent agency.

Other plans of action include enabling health professionals to support families, harnessing the best new technology, clearer food labelling and making school dinners healthier. The government needs the support of the industry, schools and the public sector to play their part in making food and drinks healthier for our children. If we begin to reduce the risks of obesity, many lives will be saved, and inequalities between boroughs will begin to deteriorate within the next ten years (2027).

There is assurance that this approach will reduce childhood obesity while still respecting it. Although there is clarity in goals and affirmation in the action that will be taken, the launch of this plan represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word. Over the coming year, progress will be assessed and action will be monitored. Action will also be taken further where it is needed.

The UK has the potential to lead the world in preventing obesity. It did the same thing with blood pressure via the salt reduction programme, which is being carried out throughout the world. The salt reduction programme was successful under the Food Standards Agency because the agency provided a level playing field. Each company had to do the same, enabling a voluntary policy to be successful. It may be more difficult to execute the key aims of the Childhood Obesity Plan. Therefore, it is essential that there are punitive measures in place if the food industry does not comply.