Widening inequalities in society are driving higher levels of obesity amongst deprived communities, according to a new study.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow found higher rates of overweight and obesity in socioeconomically disadvantaged children despite an overall plateauing of childhood obesity levels in the UK since 2004.
Children from more deprived areas, non-white children, and those from non-degree-educated or single-parent households have experienced the highest increase in obesity and overweight. In contrast, children from more advantaged backgrounds have seen little change in obesity rates.
The researchers say the findings, published in Archives of Disease in Childhood, point to an ‘urgent need for consistent and robust public health policies’ to mitigate against rising obesity levels and associated health inequalities.
The NHS long term plan states that a third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese in the UK. A rising number of children are expected to need treatment for severe complications related to their obesity, such as diabetes, cardiovascular conditions, sleep apnoea and poor mental health.
Using data from the Health Survey for England (HSE) and the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), the researchers analysed data from over 50,000 children in England between 1995 and 2019. The impact of inequalities was assessed by examining childhood weight alongside factors such as parental education, family structure, ethnicity and area-level Index of Multiple Deprivation.
Overall, the study shows that childhood obesity rates have increased over the 24-year study period, with the prevalence rising from 26 per cent in 1995 to nearly 32 per cent in 2019. The highest and fastest growing levels were seen in children between 11 and 15 years of age.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds showed the highest increase in prevalence of obesity and overweight. Initially, overweight or obesity was more common in white children, with 26 per cent being overweight. This trend reversed over time, and by 2015–2016, prevalence was 25.9 per cent in white children and 34.5 per cent in non-white children, a pattern that persisted throughout the study.
Similar patterns were seen in single-parent families versus couple-led households, with rates of obesity and overweight in children starting at similar rates but rising faster in single-parent households. Households with degree-educated adults generally had lower obesity rates than non-degree-educated adults.
The study demonstrates that stable trends in childhood overweight and obesity in England can conceal patterns of weight gain across deprivation, gender, family structure, ethnicity, and parental education, reflecting deepening inequalities.
Dr Philip Broadbent, from the University of Glasgow, said: ‘Childhood obesity and overweight pose significant health risks, with prevalence higher in the UK than in comparable countries, with over a third of children having overweight or obesity. With the UK projected to be Europe’s most obese country by 2030, addressing this issue is a public health priority, and preventing and treating obesity in children and young people is therefore crucial.’
He added: ‘Our study, which explores long-term trends across multiple social inequality dimensions, and for the first time compares these with administrative data, demonstrates that understanding these evolving inequalities in society is crucial, as obesity drivers may vary across social groups. Our findings underscore the urgent need for consistent and robust public health policies to confront the growing disparities that drive increases in childhood obesity and to help mitigate health inequalities for a healthier future for all children.’