What progress on food education? Alarming new statistics on obesity rates among children

New figures released by NHS Digital this week suggest that there has been a “significant increase” in obesity rates among children in England as a result of the Covid pandemic. Other official figures show that one in three children leaving primary school are overweight or living with obesity and that one in five are living with obesity. Meanwhile, the NHS has announced a pilot programme of 15 specialist clinics for severely obese children and young people, offering tailored care packages to support weight loss. Given its damaging effect on health and wellbeing, obesity is one of the most significant long-term challenges we face. Any comprehensive long-term plan to tackle overweight and obesity must be proactive and not reactive, with food education a core element.

The data from NHS Digital indicates that obesity rates in both reception-aged and year 6 children (ie children aged 10–11) increased by around 4.5 percentage points between 2019–20 and 2020–21. That is the highest annual rise since the current measurement programme began more than a decade ago.

The data also shows that in 2020–21 obesity prevalence among children living in the most deprived areas was more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas, and that obesity prevalence was higher for boys than for girls. Among year 6 pupils, for example, 29.2% of boys were obese compared to 21.7% of girls.

The NHS specialist clinics pilot programme aims to support one thousand children a year who are aged between two and 18 and experiencing health complications related to severe obesity. Tailored care packages may include diet plans, mental health treatment and coaching.

The pandemic has shone a harsh light on obesity – with many vulnerable young people struggling with weight gain during the pandemic. Left unchecked, obesity can have other very serious consequences, ranging from diabetes to cancer. This early intervention scheme aims to prevent children and young people enduring a lifetime of ill-health.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS in England

Here’s what the NHS says about the dangers of obesity in children.

Obesity in childhood can lead to significant health problems. Obesity affects one in five children in the UK and can increase the likelihood of a child developing serious health issues such as type-2 diabetes, liver conditions and early heart disease. Children who are severely obese can also develop difficulties such as breathing problems, sleep issues and mental health problems, which can dramatically impact their quality of life.

Obesity does not just affect people in childhood, of course. According to official figures, 63% of adults are above a healthy weight and, of these, half are living with obesity. Nor is it a problem that solely affects England, or Europe, or even the developed world. It is a worldwide crisis, affecting more than a quarter of the global population. As we set out in our blog We must do more to help children eat healthily, says LBL changemaker, the World Health Organisation’s statistics on obesity are staggering:

  • In 2016, more than 1.9 billion adults were overweight. Of these more than 650 million were obese
  • 39% of adults were overweight in 2016, and 13% were obese
  • 39 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020
  • More than 340 million children and adolescents aged 5–19 were overweight or obese in 2016

Physical activity is an essential element of any weight-management programme, of course, but so is diet. We have argued that food education and healthy eating — knowledge, knowhow and practice — must be at the heart of any long-term strategy for improving children’s physical wellbeing.

For example, we have written in support of the National Food Strategy, published in 2020 — the Dimbleby Report — which described the country’s eating habits as a “slow-motion disaster” and called for a concerted whole-school approach to food education.

The Life-Based Learning approach would make life itself the primary focus of learning. The Body is one of nine LBL learning themes:

  • learning about the body itself — knowledge
  • learning how to look after the body — knowhow
  • applying the knowledge and knowhow — practice

A Body learning programme would include teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating as well as helping them to learn the basics of how to cook healthy meals. The ‘practice’ element is crucial. Active learning — actively engaging children by doing and experiencing — makes learning fun, helps to embed new knowledge and enables them to see the practical, real-world relevance of their learning.

Read More About Diet and Food Education

Image at the head of this article by Jill Wellington from Pixabay.

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