One primary school child in three is 'too fat'

Behind the Headlines

Thursday December 13 2012

Overweight children often grow up into overweight adults

Obesity in children was in the headlines today, with most papers reporting that, among children in their final year at primary school, one child in three is overweight or obese.

The stories come from the latest figures on children’s weight in England published by the NHS Information Centre for health and social care. Its report, based on measurements taken for the 2011/2012 school year, found that, in reception, more than a fifth of children (22.6%) measured were either overweight or obese. By year 6, the final year of primary school, this proportion had increased to just over one in three (33.9%). 

 

How do we know if a child is overweight?

Assessing whether an adult is overweight or obese is usually simply done by measuring their body mass index (BMI). This is their weight in kilograms divided by their height in metres squared. Someone with a BMI of between 25 and 29 is considered to be overweight and someone with a BMI of 30 or above is considered to be obese.

However, children grow at different rates, so health professionals also use children’s growth charts showing a range of heights and weights of children of both sexes and at all ages to work out how a child’s BMI compares with that of the average child of his or her age and sex.

The ranges for each age group are then divided into 100 equal sections, known as centiles, ranging from the very lowest weight (the first centile) to the very highest weight (the 100th centile).

In this report, a child was considered to be overweight if they were found to be between the 85th and 94th centile and obese if they were found to be equal to or above the 95th centile.

 

Who published the report?

The report comes from the NHS Information Centre for health and social care. The centre collects and analyses statistics and other data on health and social care. These statistics are used by policymakers and healthcare providers to help run the NHS and social services more effectively. 

 

What evidence did the report consider?

The report is based on the government’s National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP) for England, for 2011/2012.

Every year, the NCMP measures the height and weight of all eligible children in reception year (typically aged four or five years) and in year 6 (aged 10 to 11 years) – the final year of primary school.

Using these measurements combined, researchers calculate the prevalence of pupils who are underweight, a healthy weight, overweight and obese.

The NCMP has provided data on children’s weight for the past six years.

Children eligible for inclusion in the NCMP are all pupils in reception and year 6 attending state-maintained schools in England (except special schools). The measurement of children's heights and weights, without shoes and coats and in normal, light, indoor clothing, was overseen by healthcare professionals and undertaken in school by trained staff. Measurements could be taken at any time during the 2011/12 academic year and the results were adjusted for age differences among the children. The data submitted underwent a series of data quality checks.

The latest report is based on measurements received for 1,056,780 children in England (93% of those eligible). The report says that because participation was so high, calculations of prevalence are very likely to be accurate.

 

What were the main findings of the report?

The report is based on measurements received for 1,056,780 children in England (93% of those eligible). Below are the report’s key findings:

Obese and overweight

  • In reception, more than a fifth (22.6%) of the children measured were either overweight or obese – the same as in 2010/11.
  • In year 6, the proportion of children who were overweight or obese was just over one in three (33.9%). This compares with 33.4% last year.
  • The percentage of obese children in year 6 (19.2%) was more than double that of reception year children (9.5%).
  • Among reception year children, the prevalence of overweight pupils (13.1%) was greater than that of obese pupils (9.5%).
  • In year 6, the opposite was true, with prevalence of overweight children (14.7%) being lower than that of obese children (19.2%).

Healthy weight

  • The prevalence of children with a healthy weight was higher in reception (76.5%) than year 6 (64.9%).
  • In both years a higher percentage of girls were of a healthy weight than boys. In reception 77.8% of girls and 75.4% of boys were a healthy weight and in year 6 this was 66.2% and 63.6%, respectively.

Underweight

  • The overall prevalence of underweight children was higher in year 6 (1.3%) than in reception (0.9%). In reception, a higher percentage of boys were underweight than girls (1.1% and 0.7%, respectively); whereas, in year 6, a higher percentage of girls were underweight than boys (1.5% and 1.1%, respectively).

Obesity and overweight by region

Of England’s 10 strategic health authorities (SHAs):

  • the north east SHA had the highest prevalence of obese and overweight children (24.5%) in reception year, while the south east coast SHA had the lowest prevalence for this year (20.7%)
  • London SHA had the highest recorded prevalence among year 6 children (37.7%), while south central and south east coast was lowest for year 6 (30.8%)

Obesity and deprivation

  • The prevalence of obesity in both reception year and year 6 increased in relation to deprivation levels – with children in the most deprived areas more likely to be obese and overweight (12.3% and 24.3%, respectively) than those in the least deprived areas (6.8% and 13.7%).
  • Year 6 children in urban areas were more likely to be obese (19.9%) compared with those in towns and suburbs (16.3%) and those in rural locations (15.6%). A similar pattern was seen for children in reception year (9.8%, 8.1% and 7.8%, respectively).

Obesity and ethnicity

  • Children who were black or black British were most likely to be obese both in reception year (15.6%) and year 6 (27.5%), while Chinese children were those least likely to be obese both in reception year (7.3%) and year 6 (16.7%).

 

How accurate was the media's coverage of the report

Coverage of the report in the media was fair. Understandably, papers concentrated on the worrying finding that, in year six, one child in three is overweight or obese.

 

What to do if you are worried that your child is overweight or obese

While not as precise for children as for adults, our interactive BMI healthy weight calculator should give you a reasonably accurate assessment of whether your child has a weight problem.

Your child’s weight matters because it can affect their health now and in the future. Overweight children are more likely to grow up into overweight adults, who face all the health risks that carrying excess weight can bring.

It’s a good idea to ask for support. Your GP can help.

Children are growing, so it’s usually not necessary for overweight children to lose weight. Instead, it is usually better that the child maintains their current weight while they continue to grow in height. This will depend on how overweight your child is, and other factors.

If you’re unsure about this or other issues, ask for advice from your GP or practice nurse.

Get healthy as a family

A healthy, balanced diet and plenty of physical activity will lead to a healthy weight for your child.

Making changes to your family’s lifestyle can make a real difference to your child’s weight. These changes work best, and are easiest, when the whole family joins in.

Eat regular meals, together and without distractions (such as TV) as a great first step towards a healthier diet. Cook for yourself rather than relying on ready-made meals to help you to lower the fat and sugar content in your meals.

Read more advice about What to do when your child is overweight and Getting active with your kids.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS Choices. Follow Behind the Headlines on Twitter.

Links to the headlines

Obese by year 6. The Sun, December 13 2012

The fat timebomb: A third of primary school children are now overweight or obese. Daily Mail, December 12 2012

A third of year 6 children overweight, study shows. Metro, December 13 2012

Links to the science

The NHS Information Centre for health and social care. National Child Measurement Programme: England, 2011/12 school year. Published online December 2012

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

User363614 said on 15 December 2012

More evidence that obesity is not due to affluence, and is due to processed food.

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Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

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Media last reviewed: 06/09/2013

Next review due: 06/09/2015

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