Poor children in Britain are now fatter than wealthy youngsters demonstrating a total reversal in the weight of the two social classes over the past 70 years.
Traditionally, poverty has been associated with malnutrition and thinnness. But a new study by University College London, which compared children today to those born in the 1940s, 50s and 70s, has found a dramatic switch.
In 1957, deprived 11-year-olds were on average 4.4lbs lighter than those from the upper classes as food shortages and gruelling lifestyles took their toll. But in 2015, the poorest children were 4.6lbs heavier than the richest.
BMI (Body Mass Index) was also found to have risen among the most socially deprived teenagers. For children born in 2001, by the age of 15, there was a 1.4 kg/m2 difference between the classes, the highest ever recorded.
In new research, published in the The Lancet Public Health, the authors said there had been considerable changes to diets and physical activity levels in Britain since the end of the Second World War.
Children born after the war were raised on rations until 1954, and so had a diet high in vegetables and low in fat and sugar. Since then, the food environment has become increasingly obesogenic, with previously expensive treats becoming cheap and readily available.
Dr David Bann, of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at UCL, said: “Our findings illustrate a need for new effective policies to reduce obesity and its socioeconomic inequality in children in the UK – previous policies have not been adequate, and existing policies are unlikely to be either.
“Without effective interventions, childhood BMI inequalities are likely to widen further throughout adulthood, leading to decades of adverse health and economic consequences.
“Bold action is needed, such as creating further incentives for food manufacturers to reduce sugar and fat content in food and drinks, reduce the advertising of unhealthy foods to children and families, and incentivise the sale of healthier alternatives”
One in five children are now obese by the time they leave primary school and in some areas of the country nearly half of 11-year-olds weight too much. Recent research from Public Health England (PHE) found that overweight and obese children are eating an extra 500 calories a day.
To tackle the problem PHE is calling on food manufacturers to cut the number of calories in the foods most bought by families.
The new study included data for more than 35,000 children born in England, Scotland and Wales from four longitudinal birth cohort studies beginning in 1946, 1958, 1970 and 2001
However the research also showed the difference in height between the poorest and richest has narrowed, with fewer disadvantaged children now of short stature.
In the 1946 cohort, the average 7 year olds were one and a half inches (3.9cm) shorter than the least disadvantaged children in the 1946 cohort, whereas the difference in children in the 2001 cohort was just half an inch (1.2cm).
Commenting on the new study, Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “The availability, quality and affordability of food is key to this research.
“Though all children have grown in stature in the decades since the war, the end of rationing and simply more food enabled the poorest substantially to catch up in height.
“The downside, however, is that their staple diet has become progressively worse in comparison with that of richer families and in an obesogenic society its density has stayed with them.
“The researchers are quite correct to call for a sea change in our food composition if further obesity is to be avoided in deprived areas."