Obesity set to soar for boys, but not girls, from poorer homes

Most boys from deprived backgrounds in England will be overweight by 2020 while better-off boys grow slimmer, says study

Childhood obesity is set to increase so sharply among boys from poorer homes in England that three in five of them will be dangerously overweight by 2020, research shows.

But the number of well-off boys who are overweight or obese is expected to fall to one in six in that time, underlining that obesity’s already stark class divide will widen even further.

Doctors and health campaigners urged ministers to take tough action to reduce the number of children and young people who are becoming very heavy, including restricting advertisements on television for junk food before the 9pm watershed and taxing unhealthy foodstuffs.

At the moment, 16% of boys in England aged between five and 11 from the most deprived backgrounds are overweight and another 34% are obese, with only 51% a normal weight. But on current trends those figures will rise to 17% (overweight) and 43% (obese) by 2020, leaving only a minority – two out of five (40%) – who have a healthy body mass index.

In contrast, the proportion of boys that age from the wealthiest backgrounds who are overweight is likely to fall from 12% in 2016 to 10% in 2020 and those who are obese by a third from 9% to 6%, with the percentage who are a normal weight rising from 79% to 83%

“These shocking figures are yet another wake-up call to the devastating impact that obesity is having on our children, with certain sections of society being harder hit than others, just as we have seen with smoking,” said Sarah Toule, head of health information at the World Cancer Research Fund.

“Widening of inequalities appals me – it’s a waste of human resources. When a child is born into poverty they miss out. They miss out on school trips, nutritional meals and warm, dry clothes and homes. They are also more likely to suffer poorer health as a result and become overweight or obese or develop mental health issues,” said Prof Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

“The figures further highlight the impact – specifically on boys – poverty has on a child’s health and wellbeing. Inequality tells us we can do something about it. We need a country for everyone, not just an environment for the rich.”

But levels of obesity are set to remain about the same among girls irrespective of their background – at about one in five of those aged five to 11, according to the research by the UK Health Forum for the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of medical groups and health charities.

Projections based on trends seen in the Health Survey for England undertaken between 2008 and 2012 show that obesity and overweight in girls from the least deprived families are set to fall slightly from 23% now to 22% in 2020, while among poorer girls from 24% to 21%

Robin Ireland, chief executive of the Health Equalities Group, said while it was hard to explain the gender gap, “there could be a number of reasons – including girls usually being more conscious about their physical appearance, and boys being more brand loyal and therefore susceptible to the billions of pounds spent on marketing to children through brand characters and sports stars.

“From a young age, children are developing a taste for high sugar, salt and fatty foods that is difficult to break once established and, as a nation, we all have a responsibility to help shape children’s diets.”

Public Health England, which advises the government, said it was “deeply worrying” that children faced such wildly different chances of becoming obese simply because they lived in deprived areas. Its drive to reduce sugar and calories in foodstuffs by 20% by 2020 as part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy would help, said Dr Alison Tedstone, its chief nutritionist.


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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