One in five children born in the UK at the beginning of the new century was obese by the age of 11, a new study shows.
A further 15 per cent of the 13,000 children being followed by researchers at the Institute of Education, London, were found to be overweight.
The latest findings from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) will add to public concern over child obesity in the UK.
Children who are overweight or obese face an increased risk of many health problems, including asthma, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Childhood overweight and obesity are also associated with psychological problems such as low self-esteem and depression.
The IOE analysis, which is to be published tomorrow (Friday, November 28), points out that the proportion of ‘children of the new century’ who were classified as obese jumped from 13 per cent at age 7 to 20 per cent at age 11.
“The number of children who were an unhealthy weight was significantly greater at age 11 than in previous MCS surveys,” said Dr Roxanne Connelly, who analysed the data. “The overall proportion who were either overweight or obese rose from 25 per cent at age 7 to 35 per cent at age 11.”
By age 11, boys in the MCS had reached an average height of 1.46 metres (4ft 9ins), while girls were slightly taller at 1.47 metres (4ft 10ins). Girls also weighed slightly more, with an average weight of 42kg (6st 9lbs) compared to 41kg (6st 6lbs) for boys.
The prevalence of overweight and obesity varied significantly by country in the UK. Forty per cent of 11-year-olds in Wales and Northern Ireland were overweight or obese compared to 35 per cent in England and 33 per cent in Scotland.
There was a clear link between children’s weight at age 11 and their parents’ level of education. Twenty-five per cent of children whose parents had no educational qualifications were obese and a further 14 per cent were overweight.
By contrast, 15 per cent of children who had at least one parent with a degree were obese and the same proportion was overweight. No link was found between children’s weight and their parents’ social class.
Overweight and obesity at age 11 were, however, strongly associated with the mother’s weight. Children with obese mothers were most likely to be overweight (19%) or obese (36%) themselves.
Children’s weight has been measured in MCS surveys at ages 3, 5, 7 and 11. Overall, almost half (49%) of the millennium children were classified as overweight or obese in at least one of the four surveys.
Those who were obese at age 11 were less likely than other children to be ‘completely happy’ with the way they looked, the researchers found. They were also slightly more likely to say they were ‘not happy at all’ with their appearance.
For girls, there was a link between weight and how they felt about life as a whole. Girls who were not overweight were more likely to report being ‘completely happy’ than those who were classified as obese. No association was found for boys.
“These findings highlight the value of the Millennium Cohort Study for addressing issues relating to child health and, in particular, for advancing our understanding of the ‘obesity epidemic’,” Dr Connelly said. “One of the key issues we now need to focus on is why there was such a sharp increase in overweight and obesity among the MCS children between ages 7 and 11.”
Podcast: Children’s physical development – with Roxanne Connelly
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Millennium Cohort Study: weight status by gender and country at age 11