Health officials have expressed “alarm” over a significant rise in obesity levels among primary school pupils which are now at an “all-time high”.
Data from NHS Digital shows that almost one in seven children start primary school obese – a rise of almost 50% in just one year
And more than a quarter are obese by the time they finish primary school.
Two-fifths of Year 6 pupils are either overweight or obese as they prepare to start secondary school.
NHS leaders warned that being overweight or obese can lead to physical and mental illness which in turn can impact on children’s future life chances.
Figures from the National Child Measurement Programme, which measures obesity prevalence among school-aged pupils in reception class and Year 6, show that obesity rates increased in both year groups by around 4.5 percentage points between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the highest rise since the programme began.
Among reception-aged children, those aged four and five, the rates of obesity rose from 9.9% in 2019/20 to 14.4% in 2020/21.
And among Year 6 pupils, those in their last year of primary school aged 10 and 11, obesity prevalence increased from 21% in 2019/20 to 25.5% in 2020/21.
Boys had a higher prevalence of obesity than girls for both age groups.
Children living in poorer areas were twice as likely to be obese than those living in wealthier neighbourhoods.
The proportion of children who were a healthy weight dropped between 2020/21 and 2019/20.
Among Year 6 pupils, 57.8% were deemed to be a healthy weight, down from 63.4% the year previously.
Among reception children, seven in 10 (71.3%) were classed as having a healthy weight, down from 76.1% the year previously.
The proportion of all children who were either overweight or obese was 27.7% in reception and 40.9% in Year 6.
Health leaders expressed concern over the figures.
Speaking at the NHS Providers annual conference, Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS in England, said: “The National Child Measurement Programme statistics provide extremely worrying reading – they show the prevalence of obesity in reception year has increased by almost 50% in just one year and more than one in four children are obese by the time they leave primary school.
“Many children who are living with obesity or are overweight suffer, or run the risk of, physical and mental illness including type 2 diabetes, asthma and depressions.
“These in turn can impact educational attainment and their future life chances, earning potential , happiness and of course longevity.”
She warned earlier on Tuesday that many vulnerable young people have struggled with weight gain during the coronavirus pandemic as she launched a pilot scheme which will see 15 new specialist clinics care for severely obese children and their families.
About a thousand children aged two to 18 will benefit from the services each year, which will offer diet plans, mental health treatment and coaching.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s national medical director, added: “These figures today are frankly disturbing. Rates of childhood obesity are now at an all-time-high, with many young people struggling with weight gain during the pandemic.”
Commenting on the figures, Caroline Cerny, lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “This new data highlights the need for a relentless drive on improving children’s health.”
Nikki Joule, policy manager at Diabetes UK, said: “This new data, which shows that two-fifths of children aged 10-11 in England are living with overweight and obesity is hugely concerning, and it underlines why urgent action is needed to improve children’s health.”
Dr Max Davie, officer for health improvement at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “This sharp increase in obesity levels across childhood is alarming.
“While lockdown may have been a key factor, we mustn’t assume that this year’s results are an aberration since there may be other factors, including mental health difficulties, which will take time to address.
“One factor we must focus on is poverty. Every year we see the gap between the most and least deprived children widen”
Last year, Boris Johnson launched the Government’s anti-obesity strategy and was said to have become passionate about the issue after his severe bout of Covid.
It included plans for a ban on TV and online adverts for food high in fat, sugar and salt before 9pm and ending deals such as buy-one-get-one-free on unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and fat.