In 2023 the Chief Executive of the British Heart Foundation warned the Government not to put the brakes on its anti-obesity policies, adding that the resulting heart and circulatory disease would cost the economy £58m per year. Charmaine Griffiths said that after a flurry of early activity, a ‘bold strategy’ to address obesity was now languishing on the shelf gathering dust and that kicking these policies into the long grass was ‘a misguided move.’ Now researchers investigating the impact of the pandemic on rates of childhood obesity have warned that post-pandemic trends will cost society £8.7 billion. Iván Ochoa Moreno from the University of York who led the research says the findings provide policymakers with a clear target for effective intervention.
Tackling obesity is one, if not THE biggest health problem facing the world today. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that obesity prevalence has tripled worldwide in the last 40 years. In 2020, around 800 million adults and 157 million children and adolescents aged 5 to 19 years were obese. Those figures show no sign of abating.Overweight and obesity, which affect less advantaged groups most, increase the risk of many health diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. They also have a significant impact on quality of life and mental health.
Our study found a sharp increase in childhood of obesity between 2019/20 and 2020/21 in reception pupils (aged 4-5 years) and in year 6 children (aged 10-11). While many reception-aged pupils returned to healthier, pre-pandemic weights, obesity levels remained stubbornly high among the older, year six pupils.
This equates to an extra 56,000 children living with obesity as a result of the pandemic. This surge in childhood obesity during the pandemic illustrates its profound impact on children’s development.Based on prior trends and, in the absence of a pandemic, we would not have expected to see these levels of childhood obesity for another 10 years.
Body mass index measurements
We used information collected by the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) which measures the BMI of children in reception and year six each year.
The increased prevalence of childhood obesity shown in these data were, in some respects, unsurprising. They were a clear but unintended consequence of the measures taken to reduce transmission of the disease. Lockdowns led to the closure of businesses and schools, economic hardship, social isolation, and an uncertain future. They led to poorer diets and reduced physical activity. The lives of these children were changed dramatically with multiple consequences for their progress , health and wellbeing.
What was surprising, however, was the fact that the number of four- and five-year-olds living with obesity returned to pre-pandemic levels, whilst the levels and trends for ten and eleven year-olds remained stubbornly high.
We went on to project the likely impact of these trends on the health of adults and to estimate the wider costs to society. We believe the increase in overweight and obesity prevalence in ten- and eleven-year-olds alone could cost the NHS £800 million. The cost to wider society could be at least £8.7 billion.
This includes costs relating to reduced productivity and quality of life. It’s important to note that these costs should be regarded as a minimum as they do not include the impact of rising obesity prevalence in other age groups nor the effects on future mental health.
What needs to happen?
Our research raises profound social justice, equity, and financial concerns, with pressing implications for individuals, policymakers and society. Prevention measures to tackle childhood obesity must be a priority for policymakers and for us all.
It’s time to shift the policy focus of tackling overweight and obesity from adults to the under-fives. Few preventive measures have been shown to be effective in adults even though this has long been the predominant policy focus.
This research adds considerable weight to the strong scientific evidence that health trajectories are established in early life (under age 5) making this a prime opportunity for interventions.
Health literacy programmes for adolescents and young people approaching parenthood have proven to be highly cost-effective, with incremental costs of about £120, much lower than the cost of overweight or obesity, which we found to be between £650 and £4,400 per person per year. Preventive interventions that include collaborations between education and health departments based on a system-wide approach have also proved promising.
Concerted action is possible but requires political will, a multi-sector approach, and acknowledgement that health is ultimately, a nation’s cardinal asset.
is published in the journal PLOS ONE and is led by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) in collaboration with researchers from the NIHR Imperial BRC, Imperial College London and the University of Southampton.