Levels of severe obesity among children in the last year of primary school have hit an all-time high, according to official figures that have dismayed public health experts.
A day after the outgoing chief medical officer called for bold action from the government to tackle childhood obesity, data from the child measurement programme showed 4.4% (26,000) of year 6 children, aged 10 to 11, were severely obese, a definition which means they need medical help.
In England, this is the fourth consecutive year that severe obesity in year 6 has broken records, and it is up more than a third since 2006. Overweight and obesity generally in year 6 has remained stable, affecting more than a third of children (34.3%).
Overweight and obesity has continued to rise among the youngest children in the report, those aged four to five, increasing from 22.4% in the previous year to 22.6% and affecting more than 135,000 children.
The figures are highest among children from the most deprived communities, where 13.3% of four- to five-year-olds are obese, compared with 5.9% in the most affluent areas. Overweight and obesity prevalence in year 6 is 26.9% in the most deprived areas, compared with 11.4% in the least deprived.
Public Health England said the figures showed the “importance of serious action from all sectors, including the government’s steps to tackle childhood obesity, such as its challenge to the food industry to reduce 20% of sugar and calories in everyday foods consumed regularly by children”.
Food companies have so far managed less than a 5% reduction in sugar over two years. The tax on sugary drinks, however, has resulted in manufacturers cutting the sugar content by nearly 29%.
Children who are obese experience bullying and low self-esteem and are at risk of serious long-term health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, heart conditions and cancer.
“Every child has the right to grow up healthy, but this data shows the stark reality is that children are being overwhelmed by a flood of unhealthy food in our environment,” said Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance, which speaks for a wide range of health bodies. “The number of children with a weight classified as severely obese is at an all-time high and this will damage their health now and in the future.