More than one in five 10 and 11-year-olds are now classed as obese, official figures show.

Experts have warned children in Year Six are driving soaring rates of childhood obesity, triggered by the Covid pandemic.

Analysis suggests there are an extra 56,000 overweight or obese children in this age bracket than there should be.

And, alongside a ‘profound’ impact on children’s development, it could cost wider society more than £8billion, according to predictions.

Researchers from the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), Southampton Biomedical Research Centre and the University of Southampton analysed over a million children in England.

Over a million children had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). Nationally, the rate among children in Year 6 stands at over a third, despite having fallen slightly since Covid began

Over a million children had their height and weight measured under the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP). Nationally, the rate among children in Year 6 stands at over a third, despite having fallen slightly since Covid began

Among Year 6 pupils, national obesity fell from 23.4 per cent in 2021/22 to 22.7 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of children deemed either overweight or obese also dipped, from 37.8 per cent to 36.6. Both measures are above pre-pandemic levels

Among Year 6 pupils, national obesity fell from 23.4 per cent in 2021/22 to 22.7 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of children deemed either overweight or obese also dipped, from 37.8 per cent to 36.6. Both measures are above pre-pandemic levels

They used data drawn from the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) to calculate the increase in childhood obesity rates, specifically focusing on the BMI of children in reception – aged four to five – and those in Year Six aged between 10 and 11.

Analysis revealed that childhood obesity levels rocketed between 2020 and 2021.

The biggest jump was recorded in reception-age pupils, where levels of obesity rose by 45 per cent.

The team attributed this to a change in young people’s eating habits and activity levels during lockdown, when most were schooled from home.

Organised sports and recreational activities were largely unavailable, and there were knock-on effects on children’s sleep schedules and screen time.

By 2022, the data showed that the number of obese four and five-year-olds had returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that weight gain might be reversible at this age.

HOW TO CALCULATE YOUR BODY MASS INDEX – AND WHAT IT MEANS

Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of body fat based on your weight in relation to your height. 

Standard Formula:

  • BMI = (weight in pounds / (height in inches x height in inches)) x 703

Metric Formula:

  • BMI = (weight in kilograms / (height in meters x height in meters))

Measurements:

  • Under 18.5: Underweight
  • 18.5 – 24.9: Healthy
  • 25 – 29.9: Overweight
  • 30 – 39.9: Obese 
  • 40+: Morbidly obese 

But the number of 10 and 11-year-olds who were overweight or obese remained higher than expected – at 23.4 per cent – representing around 56,000 extra children.

The scientists warned that costs are set to climb because overweight and obese children and teenagers tend to become obese adults.

This includes money spent by the NHS on treating the complications of obesity, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer, and the fact that obese people more often die early.

Writing in the journal PLOS One, the team said: ‘During 2020-2021 there were steep increases in overweight and obesity prevalence in children.

‘By 2022, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged four to five returned to expected levels based on pre-pandemic trends.

‘However, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged 10 to 11 persisted and was four percentage points higher than expected, representing almost 56,000 additional children.

‘The additional lifelong healthcare cost in this cohort will amount to £800 million with a cost to society of £8.7 billion.’

Professor Keith Godfrey, one of the study’s authors, said: ‘The surge in childhood obesity during the pandemic illustrates its profound impact on children’s development.

‘Our projection that this will result in over £8.7 billion in additional healthcare, economic and wider social costs is hugely concerning.

‘Alongside the even higher costs of the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity, it is clear that we need more radical new policy measures. This will help reduce obesity and secure wellbeing and prosperity for the country as a whole.’

The researchers also discovered that children living in the most deprived areas of England are twice as likely to be obese compared to those living in the least deprived areas.

This means they will face higher lifelong economic costs compared to wealthier populations.

Co-author Professor Neena Modi, from Imperial College London, said: ‘Obesity rates disproportionately affect children living in deprived communities – and the gap between the most and least deprived groups has widened over the past 10 years. 

‘We need targeted interventions to bridge this alarming divide, especially in the under-fives where our study shows being overweight and obese can be reversed most readily. This will help ensure every child has an equal chance to grow up healthy.’

Obesity rates are soaring in children, where one in ten in reception year at school are now considered obese. Data for 2021/22

Obesity rates are soaring in children, where one in ten in reception year at school are now considered obese. Data for 2021/22

Meanwhile, Professor Simon Kenny, NHS England’s national clinical director for children and young people, said: ‘These figures will be as alarming to parents as they are to the NHS.

‘Obesity affects every human organ system, and so at a young age can have a major impact on a child’s life, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes, cancer, mental health issues and many other illnesses, which can lead to shorter and unhappier lives.

‘The NHS is committed to helping as many young people and families affected by weight issues as possible through our new network of 30 specialist clinics, which offer tailored packages of physical, psychological and social support.

‘But the NHS cannot solve this issue alone, and continued joined-up action by industry, local and national government and wider society is needed if we are to avoid a ticking health timebomb for the future.’

Commenting on the study Councillor David Fothergill, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, added: ‘Childhood obesity is one of the greatest public health challenges we face.

‘Across the country, councils are working hard to make an impact locally but the challenge is significant because the causes of unhealthy weight are complex, long-term and interlinked.

‘Councils spend significant amounts of time, effort and funding into a range of measures to combat the problem.

‘An unhealthy weight is not just a public health problem, it is everyone’s problem, and cuts across all areas of council responsibility.’

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