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The University of Southampton

Soaring childhood obesity from pandemic will cost UK billions

Published: 25 January 2024
Two boys playing football
Credit: World Obesity Federation

A dramatic increase in child obesity levels during the Covid-19 pandemic is set to cost the UK over £8 billion, according to a new study by University of Southampton researchers.

Obesity rose by 45 percent in reception age pupils (aged 4-5) between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the new analysis from over a million children in England shows.

While the number of four and five year olds who are overweight has returned to pre-pandemic levels, tens of thousands more year six children (aged 10-11) than expected are living with obesity. These children are facing lifelong health consequences, as most overweight children will become overweight adults.

The new research was led by the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Southampton and National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC), in collaboration with researchers from the NIHR Imperial BRC. It used data from the National Childhood Measurement Programme (NCMP) to calculate the increase in childhood obesity. NCMP measures the BMI of children in reception and year six each year.

Findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Professor Keith Godfrey of the University of Southampton and NIHR Southampton BRC was one of the study’s authors. He says: “The surge in childhood obesity during the pandemic illustrates its profound impact on children’s development.

“Our projection that this will result in over £8.7 billion in additional healthcare, economic and wider social costs is hugely concerning.

“Alongside the even higher costs of the ongoing epidemic of childhood obesity, it is clear that we need more radical new policy measures. This will help reduce obesity and secure wellbeing and prosperity for the country as a whole.”

More than one in five 10 and 11 year olds are now living with obesity in England. The condition increases the risk of many health diseases,including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some types of cancer. It also has an important effect on quality of life and mental health. The researchers found that in this year six age group alone, the increase in overweight and obesity prevalence could cost the NHS £800 million.

The study analysis showed that childhood obesity levels rocketed in the pandemic years, between 2019 and 2021. Experts put this down to a change in young people’s eating habits and activity levels. During this period most children were schooled from home. Organised sports and recreational activities were largely unavailable and there were effects on children’s sleeping schedules and screen time.

By 2022, NCMP data shows the number of four- and five-year-olds living with obesity returned to pre-pandemic levels, suggesting that weight gain might be reversible at this age. However, overweight and obesity prevalence in children aged ten and eleven remained higher than expected – representing almost 56,000 extra children. This suggests that weight gain was likely to be more entrenched.

Mark Hanson, co-author and Emeritus Professor from the University of Southampton and NIHR Southampton BRC, explains: “Once established, obesity has proven to be difficult to reverse. 60-85 percent of children with obesity remain obese in adulthood, increasing their risks of future ill health.

“Our finding of a rapid return to pre-pandemic levels of overweight and obesity in the youngest children suggests new policies should target under-fives. This is likely to be an effective means of tackling the growing problem of childhood obesity.”

In Southampton, ‘Early LifeLab’ is helping to address obesity among primary school children. It uses a series of teaching toolkits to make the science behind the need for healthy diet, physical activity and sleep accessible to young children.

Dr Kath Woods-Townsend of the University of Southampton is Early Lifelab programme lead and a co-author on the paper. She says: “These findings show the importance of establishing healthy behaviours from an early age.

“We show children and young people how the choices they make and the habits they form can affect their health in later life. This gives them the knowledge and skills they need to make positive changes.”

Lifelab is a partnership between the University of Southampton, the NIHR Southampton BRC and University Hospital Southampton. It is part-funded by Southampton City Council.

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