Researchers warn that tens of thousands of children who became overweight or obese during the pandemic could face lifelong health issues. Obesity rates among 10- and 11-year-olds in England have risen significantly and have not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The researchers suggest that measures targeting children under five are necessary to combat childhood obesity.
The increase in obesity is attributed to extended school absences, reduced physical activity, and unhealthy eating habits 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, with children from deprived areas being disproportionately affected.
The researchers used BMI data from the National Child Measurement Programme, which annually weighs and measures about one million Year 6 pupils in England. The number of overweight and obese pupils decreased the following year, but remained higher than pre-pandemic levels. This represents an additional 56,000 children at risk of developing conditions such as diabetes, strokes, arthritis, and some types of cancer.
The study suggests that early intervention measures aimed at pre-school children could be more effective than those focused on older children. Recommendations include changes to food placements in shops, banning fast food stores near schools, and prioritizing physical activity in nurseries and pre-schools.
The study also highlights the economic impact of the obesity increase, estimating that it could cost the UK economy over £8bn, including £800m in healthcare costs. The research was funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research.