Here to explain why the language used to describe young people’s health has turned quite so grave, and put some numbers on this is Andrea Smith, from the MRC’s Epidemiology Unit at Cambridge University where she specialises in children’s health...
Andrea - When we think about child physical health, one of the main indicators that we can look at is childhood obesity. The UK national child measurement programme released some data which showed that we have seen the highest annual rise in childhood obesity rates in the last decade. So we now know that by the time a child starts primary school, nearly 28% of children already have obesity or are overweight. And by the time that they leave primary school, just under 41% already have childhood obesity or are overweight, and these numbers really speak to a grave scale of the problem. Childhood obesity of course, is shaped by many complex factors, but during the pandemic, all children were told to stay at home and were losing out on a lot of other social structures and systems.
Chris - I recall seeing the report that was titled 'The State of the Nations' Waist Lines', which actually predated the pandemic. And in that we saw this already happening. So we can't just blame COVID for this. So why are we seeing this inexorable and now accelerating rate of childhood obesity in such young kids?
Andrea - So when we look at trends in childhood obesity, there is a huge divide in terms of social deprivation. So we know when we look at these numbers that children living in the most deprived areas are actually twice as likely to have childhood obesity compared to children who live in less deprived areas. And when we look at the numbers, we can also see that actually ethnicity is also closely linked to child weight with particularly black children more likely to be living with obesity.
Chris - And what do you attribute that to?
Andrea - So we know that deprivation affects health behaviours. So families that are struggling to put aside money to purchase healthy foods are more likely to resort to higher calorie and less nutrient dense snacks. They are also less likely to have extra money to put into expensive hobbies. So children tend to have less higher quality diets and also tend to move less, which overall results in a positive energy balance, which increases their risk for childhood obesity.
Chris - But we have always had people who are poorer in society. So if it was purely how well off you are, then surely we should have seen this trend a long time ago. And we didn't, it's much more recent than that, isn't it? So there must be other factors alongside the very important issues of deprivation and the points you've made.
Andrea - Of course. So this goes hand in hand with changes in our environment. So we know that our current environments are incredibly what we like to call "obese-ogenic." They make very palatable and high energy dense foods easily available, and they make movement less appealing and less of an easy option, which results in an overall positive energy balance.
Chris - What about the other important thing we raised at the top of the programme, Andrea, which is mental health and ill health what's happening there.
Andrea - So of course physical and mental health are closely related in lots of different ways, but we also can see from data that were released by the health foundation that, as a result of the pandemic, a lot more children and young people have been accessing mental health services. And this speaks to the loss of their usual routines and usual support mechanisms and their ability to connect with friends. And I mean, one only has to think of back in deep, dark lockdown days where we lost the ability to have contact with friends. And I think this is really important in the early years where social contact is very important for mental health.