New government child obesity data explained: A Data Story

by Shona Goudie

Today, NHS Digital released new data showing that although numbers of children living with overweight and obesity having decreased from the sharp spike that was seen during the pandemic, they remain incredibly high. In this data story we breakdown the trends in obesity levels over the last few years and where that leaves us now.  

Levels of overweight and obesity: Reception-aged children

Over 1 in 5 children in Reception have overweight or obesity.

Total levels of overweight and obesity in reception-aged children, have decreased from 23.0% to 22.2% compared with pre-pandemic (2019-20).

However, while levels of overweight have decreased (from 13.3% to 12.1%), levels of obesity have actually increased slightly from 9.9% to 10.1%.

Levels of overweight and obesity: Year 6 children

Over 1 in 3 children in Year 6 (aged 10-11) have overweight or obesity.

Unlike in Reception-aged children, in Year 6-aged children, total levels of overweight and obesity have increased from 35.2% to 37.7% compared with pre-pandemic (2019-20).

Levels of overweight have increased slightly from 14.1% to 14.3%, but the increase has mostly been driven by a large increase in obesity levels (from 21.0% up to 23.4%).

Inequalities in overweight and obesity levels in childhood: Reception-aged children

Obesity levels amongst children in the most deprived groups continue to be significantly higher than the least deprived groups.

Obesity levels are twice as high in the most deprived group (13.6%) compared to the least deprived group (6.8%).

In Reception-aged children, these inequalities widened during the pandemic (2020-21). They have since narrowed ever so slightly but are still substantial.

Inequalities in overweight and obesity levels in childhood: Year 6 children

A similar situation is seen in Year 6-aged children. Twice as many children in the most deprived group have obesity compared with the least deprived group.

Inequalities have narrowed slightly since the pandemic but remain wider than pre-pandemic.

As well as socioeconomic inequalities, we also continue to see marked ethnic inequalities, with children of black ethnicity 1.5 times more likely to have obesity than children of white ethnicity.

These latest figures definitively shows that there are a worrying number of children who are not a healthy weight – over 1 in 3 children in Year 6. This is putting them at risk of long term health problems and in doing so threatening their quality of life. In addition, it will increase the future cost to the healthcare system in treating diet-related disease and negatively impact the health of the future labour workforce, both of which combined will have a significant impact on our economy. 

While overweight and obesity levels in children have decreased in the past year, it is important not to lose sight of the longer-term trends: in year-6 children they have increased overall since before the pandemic. Urgent intervention is needed to reverse this trajectory if the Government stands any hope of reaching their target to halve childhood obesity levels by 2030. The downward trend amongst Reception-aged children has mostly been seen due to a return to normal following the pandemic, but without action this trend is very unlikely to continue. 

The deprivation gradient in obesity levels clearly illustrates that any action to improve the health of our children will not be effective if it does not directly tackle these inequalities and help the poorest children in society to eat well. Providing Free School Meals to more children is a critical first step to ensure children can access a nutritious diet. Evidence shows that Universal Free School Meals have a positive impact on weight as well as many other benefits - see our Feed the Future campaign for more. 

Free School Meals is an important intervention but not on its own a silver bullet. A comprehensive package of policies to tackle obesity will be needed to reverse childhood obesity levels. These will need to specifically focus on policy changes to transform our food environments to ensure that everyone can afford to eat well and rebalancing the cost of food to make the healthy options the most affordable. Wider systemic changes as explored in our Broken Plate report are needed to our food system to ensure that a healthy diet is affordable, available and appealing for everyone, and help children to grow up healthy. 



For more data on children’s food, see our Children’s Right2FoodDashboard here

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