Childhood obesity – why is it on the rise?

Is childhood obesity an epidemic? Should we be worried for our children? And what does the future look like? Dietitian and leading public health expert Dr Frankie Phillips speaks out…

Childhood obesity

Child obesity is sometimes referred to as a modern-day epidemic. This is unsurprising, given that it is now regarded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as one of the most serious global public health challenges of the 21st century.

Obesity in children is defined as a child having a body mass index (BMI) over the 95th centile on child growth charts, this measurement takes into account height, age and sex. Although there is debate about the best way to define child obesity. Nevertheless, national child growth statistics show that the numbers are a major concern.

Is childhood obesity on the rise?

Formal national records have been kept in the UK since 1995, and these now show that 19% of 10-11 year olds are obese. Figures suggest that the numbers may have started to level off, but remain alarmingly high. Even among younger children, the rates of obesity are shocking, with one in ten Reception-age children (children aged four to five years old) classed as obese. If overweight children are also included, which is defined as a BMI at or above the 85th percentile, the figures show that around one in three children are overweight or obese – that’s over four million children. Research suggests that if this is left untreated, up to 85% of these children will become obese as adults.

Child obesity is a problem that didn't actually come to light until the 1990s, when the number of obese children and adults saw a significant increase. In the 1980s, the number of children regarded as overweight was around 5%, while those found to be obese was only around 2% – within a decade these figures had almost doubled.

Why is child obesity on the rise?

Weight gain occurs when we take in more energy (calories) from food and drink than we use up in our day-to-day activities. Obesity is a multi-factorial condition, which means that a combination of factors, including access to cheap, energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and drinks, reduced activity and living in ‘obesogenic’ environments together cooked up a ‘perfect storm’. These factors are likely to have given the ideal conditions for the obesity epidemic to take hold.

At what age is obesity most likely to be noticed?

Statistics show that children aged 11-15 are more likely to be overweight and obese than younger children. However, weight issues can affect children at any age and studies show that many parents don’t even recognise when their child is overweight, and so don’t take any action. However, given the right kind of support, children who are obese can achieve a healthy weight as they grow, and can maintain this into adulthood if healthy habits are learned.

Obesity is common in all social classes, although it is twice as common among those families in the most deprived areas of England compared to the least deprived. Healthy eating is perceived as being expensive, but there are many ways to make healthy recipes on a budget

What are the short and long-term effects of childhood obesity?

There are both acute and longer term consequences of obesity in childhood; physical, social and psychological well-being can all be undermined. In the short term, obesity can cause problems with bone health, breathing difficulties and impact social and psychological well-being, with problems including bullying and self-esteem. Obese children are also more likely to become obese as adults, with increased risk of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers, as well as joint and muscle problems.

Tackling childhood obesity

Good nutrition is a cornerstone to children’s growth and development, and for many children, some small changes to food and activity levels will mean that over the growing years, slowing down the rate of weight gain, rather than losing weight per se, will help to achieve a healthy weight for height. For some children, who are already severely obese, more specific help might be needed, and this should be discussed with a GP, who may refer a child to a specific healthy weight programme, led by expert practitioners. Typically, these programmes are family-based and include nutrition, physical activity and behaviour components. The five pillars that can help to tackle child weight issues and obesity include:

  • Good role models – eat healthy meals with your child and have fun doing physical activities together.
  • Encouraging 60 minutes of physical activity a day (not necessarily all at once).
  • Eating ‘me-sized meals’ – child-sized portions. A good tip is to avoid adult-sized plates and start with smaller portions. Let your child ask for more if he or she is still hungry.
  • Choosing healthy mealssnacks and drinks such as water or milk.
  • More sleep and less screen time. Discover the NHS recommended sleep guidelines for children of all ages.  

For more information and other ways to help children who are very overweight, see the NHS child health measurement programme

Overall, the best way is to achieve a healthy weight from the start, beginning with the first stages of weaning and developing a lifelong love of good food.

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This article was published on 19 April 2017. 

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

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