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Widening inequalities are fuelling childhood obesity

Childhood obesity has increased the most in less advantaged groups, according to a new study.

The research – led by the University of Glasgow and published in Archives of Disease in Childhood – found that despite a plateau in overall childhood obesity since 2004, widening societal inequalities meant the increased prevalence of overweight and obesity was seesocietn primarily in socioeconomically disadvantaged children.

The study found that marked socio-economic inequalities were evident, with children from higher deprivation areas, non-white children, and those from non-degree-educated or single-parent households seeing a rising prevalence of obesity and overweight. In contrast, prevalence in children from more advantaged backgrounds stayed relatively unchanged, contributing to increasing inequalities.

The research, which used data from the Health Survey for England (HSE) and National Child measurement Programme (NCMP), looking at 56,583 children, examined trends in childhood overweight and obesity in England between 1995 and 2019. Inequalities assessed included parental education, family structure, ethnicity and area-level Index of Multiple Deprivation.

The study found that, for example, the inequalities gap between children from households with no qualifications vs. degree-level qualifications increased from -1.1% to 13.2% during this time, and the gap between single-parent households and couple households increased from 0.5% to 5.3%. Overall, the data showed that levels of child overweight and obesity increased, with the prevalence increasing from 26.0% in 1995 to 31.7% in 2019, with the highest and fastest-growing levels in those aged 11-15 years, rising from 29.7% to 38.0%. The increases in prevalence among less advantaged groups has driven widening of inequalities.

The study demonstrates that stable overall trends in childhood overweight and obesity in England concealed deepening inequalities across deprivation, gender, family structure, ethnicity, and parental education.

Dr Philip Broadbent, Honorary Clinical Research Fellow at the University’s School of Medicine, Dentistry and Nursing, said: “Childhood obesity and overweight pose significant health risks, with prevalence higher in the UK than in comparable countries, with over a third of children having overweight or obesity. With the UK projected to be Europe’s most obese country by 2030, addressing this issue is a public health priority, and preventing and treating obesity in children and young people is therefore crucial.

“Our study, which explores long-term trends across multiple social inequality dimensions, and for the first time compares these with administrative data demonstrates that understanding these evolving inequalities in society is crucial, as obesity drivers may vary across social groups. Our findings underscore the urgent need for consistent and robust public health policies to confront the growing disparities that drive increases in childhood obesity and to help mitigate health inequalities for a healthier future for all children.”

The study, ‘Trends in inequalities in childhood overweight and obesity prevalence: a repeat cross-sectional analysis of the Health Survey for England,’ is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood. The study was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and the Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office.

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