Childhood obesity: poorer school children have been worst hit by increase in severe obesity during pandemic

Children living in the most deprived areas of the country had the highest rates of severe obesity in 2020-21

Severe childhood obesity has increased dramatically in the most deprived parts of England during the pandemic, with poorer kids faring worse than than their better off peers, new data has revealed.

Data collected as part of the National Child Measurement Programme and published by NHS Digital found that obesity rates in both reception-aged and year 6 school children increased by around 4.5 percentage points between 2019-20 and 2020-21–  the highest annual rise on record.

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But it was children living in the most deprived areas of the country that had the highest rates of severe obesity in 2020-21 – and the biggest increase during the pandemic.

The proportion of severely obese children in reception class in the bottom 10% most deprived areas of the country was almost double what it was in 2019/20, with a prevalence of 7.4% in 2020/21 compared to 3.9% the year before .

Children in the most deprived areas of the country were also more than three times as likely to be severely obese compared to those in the least deprived areas, where only 2.2% were affected in 2020/21.

This was up from 1.3% in 2019/20 - also almost double, but a slower rate of increase than for the more deprived kids.

Severe obesity also rose among the most deprived year 6 children during the pandemic, with a rate of 9.5% compared to 7.4% in 2019/20.

This was also more than four times the rate for children in the same age group in the least deprived area, 2.3% of whom were severely obese.

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‘This is a wake up call for our government’

Dr Jyotsna Vohra, director of policy at the Royal Society for Public Health, said: "Our children’s health is put at risk because of the inequalities in which they are born, live and play.

“It is unacceptable that children living in our most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be obese, and four times as likely to be severely obese as children living in our least deprived communities.

“It is vital to act now and level up the playing field so that every child has an equal chance to lead a healthy life and thrive. "

Paul Gately, a director at charity Obesity UK and professor of Exercise and Obesity at Leeds Beckett University, said: “The recent data from NHS Digital of the National Child Measurement Programme is terrifying. We have never seen such an increase in rates of childhood obesity.

“Whilst the impacts of Covid are not surprising, the scale of impact on obesity rates of our children and the long term consequences shouldn’t be underestimated. This is a wake up call for our government that isn’t far off the scale of Covid itself.”

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