Child Obesity Spikes in England During the Pandemic

This was not entirely unexpected, but the jolt is remarkable. New stats are out for the rates of child obesity in England for 2021 and the numbers are up even more than we might have expected. For children aged four to five years, prevalence jumped from 9.9 to 14.4 percent between the 2019/2020 school year and the spring of 2021. For children ten to eleven, the rates are up from 21.0 to 25.5 percent. Jason Halford, President of EASO, was blunt in his assessment:

“This must be a call to arms. Not unexpected perhaps but the extent is startling and the health inequalities data underpinning this is a real issue for vulnerable communities.”

As if anticipating this, England’s National Health Service (NHS) announced yesterday that it will be setting up 15 specialty clinics to serve youth and families living with obesity. This will be a pilot based on the Care of Childhood Obesity clinic at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, which has been operating since 2018.

An Unusual Year

COVID-19 made this a very unusual year for measuring child obesity in England. The data collection ordinarily happens in schools throughout the school year. But the same procedures were not possible in the 2020/2021 school year. Schools were not open at the start of this time frame. So measurements could not begin until March. Local authorities used the remainder of the year to collect a representative sample for this report. Normally, schools collect data for every child.

Of course, these circumstances give rise to questions about whether some anomalies might have crept into the data. In a very thorough thread on Twitter, Adam Briggs says we should not dismiss these observations:

“While the HUGE jump in childhood obesity rates does make me wonder about data quality, it’s still based on 300k data points, has been statistically weighted, is physiologically plausible, and 2020/21 was extraordinary by any metric.”

This spike in England is entirely consistent with what we’ve seen in the U.S. for child obesity during the pandemic.

Wide Disparities

The disparities in these data are perhaps the most jolting aspect they present. Obesity prevalence was more than twice as high for children living in the most economically deprived areas. Chris Thomas is a senior fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. He says:

“Unless there is urgent intervention to tackle widening health disparities, our analysis suggests hundreds of thousands more children will grow up overweight or obese simply because of where they grew up.”

“While the prime minister and his health secretary have recognised that stark health disparities exist in this country, they are currently failing to address the underlying causes.”

Perhaps the NHS is getting serious about providing better care for child obesity. But to address disparities that are fueling a disparate and alarming rise in this problem, it will take a more serious commitment in public policy across the board.

Click here for the full report from NHS Digital. For further perspective, click here, here, here, and here. Finally, we strongly recommend this thread from Adam Briggs for a detailed commentary on the situation.

Children Playing in the Yard, painting by Pekka Halonen / WikiArt

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November 17, 2021

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Child Obesity Spikes in England During the Pandemic