New figures showing more than a third of P1 youngsters in Scotland’s most deprived areas are at risk of being either overweight or obese have been branded “extremely concerning” and “utterly shameful”.
Doctors’ leaders spoke out after the latest data on childhood obesity was released by Public Health Scotland – with this revealing a large rise in the proportion of students in their first year at primary school who were in this category.
The British Medical Association (BMA) insisted the figures showed that “urgent substantive action” to deal with tackle childhood obesity and poor diet in Scotland was “long overdue”.
Statistics for the 2020-21 school year showed almost three out of 10 (29.5%) P1 children were at risk of either being overweight or obese – up from 22.7% of youngsters the previous year.
These statistics are extremely concerning and underline years of clear evidence that urgent substantive action to tackle childhood obesity and poor diet across Scotland is long overdue
Dr Graeme Eunson, BMA Scotland
Overall, the research, published by Public Health Scotland, found 69.8% of P1 children had a healthy weight, while 0.8% were at risk of being underweight.
While fewer children had their height and weight checked in 2020-21 compared to the previous year – with 37% of Primary 1 children measured, compared to more than 70% pre-pandemic – the report made clear that the “degree of change seen in results in 2020-21 cannot be accounted for solely by differences in the size and composition of the dataset”.
It also noted that “marked socioeconomic inequalities” in children’s weight have developed over the past 20 years, saying that these “have widened with the recent changes”.
In 2020-21, the report found that 35.7% of P1 pupils in the most deprived areas were at risk of being either overweight or obese – a rise of 8.4 points on the previous year.
Meanwhile, in the least deprived areas, 20.8% of P1 youngsters were at risk of being overweight or obese, with this up by 3.6% on 2019-20.
In the most deprived areas 21.1% of P1 children in 2020-21 were at risk of obesity
In the least deprived areas 8.4% of P1 pupils were in this category
Just over a fifth (21.1%) of P1 children in the most deprived areas were at risk of obesity, according to the data, compared to 8.4% of their counterparts in the least deprived areas.
Dr Graeme Eunson, chair of the BMA’s Scottish consultants committee, said: “These statistics are extremely concerning and underline years of clear evidence that urgent substantive action to tackle childhood obesity and poor diet across Scotland is long overdue. “
He added: “That such a marked and widening gap persists between our most deprived and most affluent communities further underlines the need for new, radical and innovative measures that engage all sections of society.
“For too long, the poorest families in Scotland have been marginalised and stigmatised, without any meaningful action to deal with the fundamental inequalities in our society.”
Dr Eunson continued: “It is utterly shameful that the health inequality gap in children is widening and unless we act now it will only continue to contribute to poorer health in the future.
“Living under lockdown restrictions in a global pandemic will not have helped matters, but a 6.8% increase in the overall proportion of primary 1 children who are at risk of being overweight or obese between 2019/20 and 2020/21 is shocking and must be urgently addressed.”
The increase in the proportion of youngsters at risk of being overweight or obese comes as the Scottish Government is trying to halve levels of childhood obesity by 2030.
And Scottish Conservative public health spokeswoman, Sue Webber, said: “It is hugely concerning that a third of those just starting school are at risk of being overweight or obese.
“These figures should be an urgent wake-up call to SNP Ministers. They’ve simply not done enough to promote a healthy lifestyle among our pupils and the pandemic has clearly exacerbated these issues.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We want Scotland to be the best place in the world for a child to grow up.
“We’re aiming to halve childhood obesity by 2030 and significantly reduce dietârelated health inequalities by taking forward the actions in the 2018 Diet and Healthy Weight Delivery Plan.
“We are investing £3 million, largely through health boards, to implement national standards for weight management services for children and young people – an increase of £0.5 million on last year’s spending.
“We are also seeking to tackle our nation’s damaging relationship with junk food by restricting the promotion and marketing of foods high in fat, sugar or salt. To achieve this, we will bring forward legislation for implementation as soon as possible.”