Part 1: Childhood Obesity in England

in News

Childhood obesity in England is at an all-time high, with the number of overweight and obese children soaring year on year. There are a variety of reasons why this is happening, and the government, NHS, and local authorities are constantly implementing strategies that aim to drastically reduce childhood obesity within the next few years.

We’ve gathered the latest data surrounding childhood obesity in England as a whole, as well as in each region, and have created a series of graphs and charts that highlight obesity levels of both Reception and Year Six children. Our aim is to make more people aware of just how prevalent childhood obesity is, in the hope that parents, schools, local authorities, and the NHS, will continue to take action against this out-of-control epidemic.

National Child Measurement Programme

The National Child Measurement Programme is a nationally mandated public health programme that monitors the height and weight of children in Reception (aged 4-5), and Year Six (aged 10-11). It is used to assess overweight, obesity, and severe obesity levels of children within primary school. The data collected is then used to support local public health initiatives and enables improvements to be made regarding the planning and delivery of services for children. Initially, the programme was set up in line with the government’s strategy to eradicate childhood obesity, as well as:

  1. Gather accurate data that allows the trends in growth patterns and obesity in children to be analysed
  2. Inform local planning and delivery of health services to children
  3. Encourage children and families across England to openly discuss healthy lifestyles and weight problems
  4. Increase the public and professional understanding of weight issues in young children

The National Child Measurement Programme is now recognised internationally as an accurate and world-renowned source of public health intelligence and has been awarded a ‘UK National Statistics’ status.

Participating in the programme

Data is only collected by the local authorities from state maintained schools and therefore doesn’t measure children in private schools. Every school year, before the programme begins, local authorities write to the parents of all Reception and Year Six students, that are eligible to partake, to inform them of the programme. Parents then have the opportunity to withdraw their child from the programme by responding to the written notice.

The process of collecting the data

The method of determining whether a child is at a healthy weight differs from that of an adult, because, children of different ages and sexes grow and develop at rapidly different rates. Although BMI is still used, a child’s BMI is calculated by dividing their weight in KG by the square of their height in meters. This result is then compared to data gathered in 1990 when childhood obesity was much less prominent. Before a legislation change in 2013, the data was collected by NHS Primary Care Trusts; it’s now carried out by local authorities and is submitted to NHS Digital. In order to ensure local authorities collect the data appropriately, Public Health England (PHE) provides operational guidance on how to carry out the measurements. This guidance states:

  1. Local authorities must ensure that all parents of eligible children receive a letter explaining the purpose of the programme, and the option to withdraw their child
  2. To safeguard the child’s dignity and privacy, all measurements should be taken sensitively in a separate room, and not be seen or heard by any parties not directly involved in the measurement process
  3. All privacy, dignity, and cultural needs should be respected and adhered to at all times during the measurement process
  4. Results should be posted to parents within 6 weeks of the measurement taking place, and should only contain their child’s raw height and weight data, not their weight category

Once all data has been collected, it’s presented in an online tool by Public Health England that enables patterns and trends in weight to be examined at local authority level. The individual identity, weight, and height of each child are protected, and is only displayed as percentages. During 2016/2017, 604,210 boys in Reception, and 579,161 girls in Reception participated in the programme.

Reception Children in England

Due to the fact that children develop rapidly during their early years, it’s vital that their height and weight are measured regularly to ensure they are growing and developing in a healthy way. Doing this also helps to determine how well the government and local authorities are dealing with the childhood obesity epidemic and whether the strategies and programmes they are implementing are paying off. To demonstrate the weight categories of children in reception during 2016/17 compared to those in 2007/08, we’ve created this bar chart.

What this graph shows is that regardless of the hard work the government and local authorities have put into reducing obesity in children over the last 9 years, the amount of reception children in each weight bracket has barely altered. In fact, the amount of overweight reception children has increased by 0.11%, and the amount of obese and severely obese reception children has only reduced by 0.03%.

Although above we have data for all reception children in England in 2007/08 and 2016/17, we wanted to focus specifically on obesity rates of Reception Boys and Reception Girls in each region. This gives us more of an insight into why childhood obesity rates in England are still so high.

Reception Boys in England

We began by analysing the difference in obesity and severe obesity rates of Reception Boys in each region, which is shown in this bar chart:


Not only does this graph highlight the regions that have the highest and lowest levels of childhood obesity in Reception Boys, but it also provides a broken down overview of England as a whole, and explains why we currently still have a relatively high amount of overweight and obese boys.

East England has the highest percentage of healthy weight Reception Boys with 77.3%, compared to that of the North East, which has the lowest percentage of healthy children – a percentage of just 74.2. Overall, London, the North East, and the West Midlands all have the highest levels of obese and severely obese Reception Boys with 10.9%. This differs significantly from the South East which has only 8.8%.

Reception Girls in England

Along with comparing regional reception obesity levels in boys, we’ve also taken a deeper look into the percentage of Reception Girls that fall into the obese and severely obese category within each region. This data is displayed in the bar chart below:


When it comes to the highest percentage of healthy weight Reception Girls, East England takes the lead again with a percentage of 78.8, followed closely by the South East with 78.5%. The West Midlands has the lowest amount of healthy weight girls (75.2%), as well as the highest percentage of obese and severely obese, with 10.6%.

Comparing Boys in Reception with Girls in Reception

In order to see the difference between the weight brackets of Reception Boys and Reception Girls, as well as show the changes in childhood obesity levels over the last 10 years, we’ve created a comparison graph below. This graph helps us determine how successful the government and local authorities are tackling obesity in young children, and whether their efforts are proving successful.

One of the things that makes using graphs to display data great is that they offer a really clear indication of changes, and patterns – especially when it comes to providing an insight into childhood obesity levels.

The first point to mention with this graph is that we can see the stark difference between obesity and severe obesity levels in Reception Boys and Reception Girls. A much higher percentage of boys are in the obese/severely obese weight category, compared to girls.

Another point to focus on is that, although obesity levels in boys are higher than those in girls, the number of obese/severely obese boys was steadily decreasing between 2007/08 to 2014/15 overall. This differs to obese/severely obese levels in girls, which fluctuates each year, but in general, stays the same. This demonstrates that the programmes and support the government and local authorities implemented between 2007/08 to 2014/15 were positively impacting boys, but not girls.

What is apparent in both boys and girls is that the number of obese reception children began to increase quite dramatically in 2015/16, and continued to rise in 2016/17. Exactly why we saw this result is still unclear, however, the government has since implement several strategies to reduce childhood obesity in 2017/18 (which we’ve further discussed at the bottom of this article).

Year 6 Children in England

When analysing the weight of both boys and girls in Year Six, this graph shows the severity of obesity and severe obesity rates amongst Year Six students in England alone. It offers an insight into how these rates differ from those recorded 10 years ago.

Not only does this bar chart show that almost 1 in 5 Year Six children were obese or severely obese in 2016/2017, it also indicates that obesity levels in Year Six have worsened. For example, the percentage of obese/severely obese children has increased from 18.31% in 2007/08 to 19.97% in 2016/17 – an increase of 1.66%.

Additionally, the number of children in Year Six at a healthy weight has decreased from 66% to 64.41%, whilst overweight and underweight levels have practically stayed the same. This means that, regardless of all the effort the government and local authorities have put in to reducing the prominence of obesity in the last 10 year, levels are still rising.

Year 6 Boys in England

We’ve delved further into why obesity levels in Year Six are soaring by separating boys and girls. This graph shows and overview of the percentage of Year Six boys in each weight category throughout England.

Over one third of all Year Six boys were overweight, obese, or severely obese in 2016/2017, with roughly only 63 boys in every 100 falling into the healthy weight bracket. Approximately 2 out of every 100 boys were classed as underweight, which means around 37% of all Year Six Boys fell into a weight category other than ‘Healthy’.

Year 6 Girls in England

This visualisation shows roughly the number of girls in Year Six that are in each weight category out of 100.

Similarly to Year Six Boys, approximately 2 out of every 100 Year Six Girls were underweight in 2016/17; however, only 18 out of 100 girls are obese, compared to 22 boys. Furthermore, around 66% of girls in Year Six fall into a healthy weight bracket, 3% more than Year Six Boys.

Comparing Boys in Year 6 with Girls in Year 6

When we begin to compare Year Six Boys with Year Six Girls in the bar chart below, it’s easy to see the difference between the percentages of obesity and severe obesity. This time though, we’ve compared the percentage of obese and severely obese boys and girls over a 10-year period.

Initially, there are two things to take note of that this graph highlights: Both boys and girls in Year Six seem to follow the same pattern, and, as seen above in reception children, less girls fall into the obese and severe obese category than boys. The number of obese and severely obese children in Year Six appears to have steadily increased since 2007/08, until 2015/16, and 2016/17 when a significant increase occurred. This follows the same pattern found in reception children.

Children in Reception compared to Children in Year 6 (2017/18)

Due to the fact we have, so far, only analysed separate data from Year Six children or Reception children, we thought it was time to compare the two – and you won’t believe the difference.

Not only does this demonstrate that almost 10% of Reception children in England are obese, but also that this percentage more than doubles when it comes to Year 6 children to a staggering 20.1%. The amount of healthy weight children in Year 6 is also significantly lower than Reception children, with over a 12% difference.

Another key point to focus on is that, in total, over one third of all Year 6 children are overweight, obese, or severely obese, where as with Reception children, this amount is around 20%.

Why are Year Six children much more unhealthy?

It’s clear to see that there are obviously a number of factors leading to Year 6 students being unhealthier than Reception children; however, there is no concrete evidence to suggest why.

Perhaps parents become more lenient with what foods their child is consuming as they get older, or maybe Year 6 children spend more time on video games and less time being active outdoors. Either way, it appears the government needs to implement a strategy that focuses solely on Year 6 boys and girls.

What should children weigh in order to be healthy?

Age and Sex of ChildHealthy Weight in Stones and Pounds

Reception Boys 2st4lbs
Reception Girls 2st3lbs
Year 6 Boys 5st6lbs
Year 6 Girls 5st6lbs


An average height for Reception children is roughly 3 feet 3 inches, so in order to be in the middle of the healthy weight range, a 5 year old child should weigh around 2 stone 4 pounds to have a healthy BMI.

For children aged 10 – 11, their average height is around 4 feet 10 inches. Both boys and girls weights are expected to be around 5 stone 6 pounds to be in the centre of the healthy weight range. A severely obese Year 6 child would weight roughly 120 pounds.

Why is Childhood Obesity in England so Prominent?

Over the last decade, childhood obesity in England has been an extremely prominent issue. Although it’s clear to see that the government, schools, and local authorities have implemented several strategies that, at points, have deemed successful, childhood obesity figures continue to increase gradually year on year.

Because of this, we begin to evaluate the issues facing England, looking in detail at why some regions have higher obesity rates in children than others, and the reasons obesity rates aren’t decreasing as rapidly as anticipated.

Takeaways in England

To start with, there are currently over 56,000 takeaways in England alone, an increase of 8% in just 3 years. Areas in England that are the most deprived tend to have 2-3 times as many takeaways compared to areas above the poverty line, and a recent study conducted found that 1 in 5 children have a takeaway at home at least once per week.

Children who eat takeaways at home at least once per week consume a further 55-168kcals each week than children that rarely have takeaways and instead eat healthy, home cooked meals. In fact, one study carried out in Liverpool concluded that ¾ of takeaway meals (not including sides and drinks) contained over 1125kcals, with ¼ of meals exceeding the recommended daily intake of 1,800kcal for boys aged 9-13.

But why are so many parents relying on expensive takeaways to feed their children? Well, although takeaway food may seem expensive, more calories can be purchased for less money. This makes it seem like a better choice for many people living below the poverty line.

For example, a bunch of 5 bananas contains roughly 500kcal and can be purchased for £1. In comparison, £1 worth of takeaway food equates to 900kcal. When we look at statistics like this, it’s easy to see why many parents would prefer to feed their child unhealthy convenience food instead of healthier, more nutritional food.

What have the government done to reduce childhood obesity levels?

Although the government has implemented a multitude of strategies in order to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, two of the most apparent are sugar tax and changes to supermarket layouts. Both of these changes have been used to question consumer buying habits, and to encourage people to rethink the items they put in their trolley.

Sugar tax

In April 2018, the government introduced a levy on high-sugar drinks that aimed to encourage manufacturers and supermarkets to make their drinks recipes healthier. A number of leading brands including Fanta, Ribena, and Lucozade cut the sugar content in a variety of their drinks to prevent them being impacted by the levy, Coca-Cola, however, did not.

Drinks that have more than 8 grams of sugar per 100ml now face a tax of 24p per litre, and those containing 5-8g of sugar have a slightly lower levy of 18p per litre. Manufacturers that produce drinks with less than 5g of sugar per 100ml don’t have to pay the levy at all. Pure fruit juices are exempt from the sugar levy because they contain natural sugars, along with drinks that have high milk content because of their levels of calcium.

The income generated by the sugar tax, approximately £240 by the end of 2018, is being used to invest in school sports and breakfast clubs.

4-6 years olds are only supposed to consume 5 cubes of sugar per day, but many drinks contained almost double that in one serving. The worst culprits were energy drinks, and soft drinks were a close second.

Changes to supermarket layouts

The second noticeable changes included supermarkets altering the layout of their products to prevent sugary snacks being at eye level for children. This included moving unhealthier snacks and foods to higher shelves, and swapping the till-side treats for more nutritious snacks with much lower sugar content.

The idea of this simple switch was to prevent children being exposed to as many sugary, fatty, unhealthy foods, therefore making it less challenging for parents to buy healthier food items.

The Bottom Line of Childhood Obesity in England

When looking at childhood obesity rates in England as a whole, it becomes apparent that we have a serious issue ensuring all children are as healthy as possible. The government, NHS, and local authorities are continually pulling together to come up with new strategies to combat obesity, but their plans seem to be failing.

In the next section of this guide, we’ll be looking in depth at region-specific data to determine which areas are most affected by the obesity epidemic and why.