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Obesity in children in England continues to rise

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 05 May 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:1044
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    More than one in four children in England are overweight or obese, said a government report published last week which showed that obesity in young people is continuing to rise.

    The report showed that the prevalence of obesity in children aged 2 to 10 increased from 9.9% in 1995 to 13.7% in 2003. The total number of overweight and obese children rose from 22.7% to 27.7% in this period. Obesity increased most in older children aged 8 to 10, rising from 11.2% in 1995 to 16.5% in 2003. Levels of obesity were similar for both sexes, increasing from 9.6% in 1995 to 14.9% in 2003 for boys and from 10.3% to 12.5% for girls.

    More detailed figures for 2001 and 2002 provided information on risk factors for obesity. Children living in households with the lowest incomes had higher rates of obesity than those from households with the highest household incomes (15.8% v 13.3%).

    Levels of obesity were 5% higher among children living in the most deprived areas (16.4%) compared with children from the least deprived (11.2%). Obesity levels were lowest in Yorkshire and the Humber and the south east (11%-13%), and highest in the north east and London (about 18%) in 2001-2. Children living in inner city areas were particularly prone to obesity.

    Based on socioeconomic groups (analysed using the national statistics socioeconomic classification, similar to social class), 17.1% of children whose parents had semiroutine or routine occupations were obese compared with 12.4% of those from managerial and professional households.

    Children were much more likely to be overweight or obese if both parents were overweight or obese. Nearly one in five (19.8%) children living in households in which both parents were overweight or obese were themselves obese compared with 6.7% of children living in households in which neither parent was overweight or obese and 8.4% of children living in households in which one of the two parents was overweight or obese.

    The study used the 85th and 95th percentiles of the 1990 UK data as cut-off points for overweight and obesity. Figures for subsequent years were then compared with the 1990 reference data.

    David Haslam, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, a group of health professionals working to improve obesity prevention and management, and a GP, said, “These statistics are very gloomy, but not surprising.” He considered that they show the urgent need for public health measures to reduce the growing obesity epidemic, with the young as a key target. “Measures should be introduced across the board, including efforts to increase breastfeeding, for which rates are abysmal in the [United Kingdom], through to measures to change food intake and physical activity levels.”

    Dr Haslam welcomed recent government initiatives to highlight obesity but thought that the target of halting the rise in childhood obesity by 2010 was too conservative. “It potentially condemns children not yet born to the current unacceptably high rates of obesity.” He suggested that measures to reduce childhood obesity, such as replacing unhealthy foods and drinks in school vending machines with healthier alternatives and stopping the advertising of unhealthy foods to children, could be introduced immediately. At the same time longer term measures could be devised, such as changing food content and improving food labelling. “Reducing obesity in children has to be a high priority for public health,” he concluded.

    The findings were based on information collected from the Health Survey for England, an annual survey that interviews about 16 000 adults and 4000 children and includes height and weight measurements, enabling body mass index to be calculated. Additional information was collected in 2002, when more children were interviewed than in a standard year. This information was combined with data collected from children and young adults interviewed in 2001 to generate much larger sample sizes to enable comparisons between different subgroups.

    The report, Health Survey for England: Obesity Among Children Under 11, is available at