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Childhood Obesity

In 2019, the UK Government called childhood obesity “one of the biggest health challenges this country faces”. Childhood obesity contributes to a range of physical and mental health conditions. This POSTnote outlines current trends in childhood obesity, the impacts on children’s health and access to support. It also covers key risk factors for childhood obesity and evidence on the effectiveness of policies to address it.

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The latest data from 2019-20 reported that at the end of primary school, 35% of children aged 10-11 years are living with overweight or obesity and 21% are living with obesity. The Government’s obesity strategy seeks to halve the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2030, with a focus on encouraging individual behaviour change, product reformulation and restricting unhealthy food marketing. Policies to address childhood obesity are also in place in devolved nations. (In the research and policy fields, the term overweight is commonly used as a noun and so is used in this way in this briefing.)

Key points

  • Obesity is complex and is driven by multiple and interacting behavioural, social and environmental factors. The biggest risk factors include unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity, family health and behaviour, access to food outlets and spaces for active play and exercise.
  • Data from a national programme in England that tracks children’s weight – the National Child Measurement Programme – shows that increasing childhood obesity is associated with inequality. For example, children from the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be living with obesity as those from the least deprived areas. Children from some Black and minority ethnic communities are more likely than White British children to have a high body mass index (BMI) and this inequality is growing.
  • Children with obesity are at increased risk of mental and physical health problems, some of which can persist into adulthood. This may result in longer periods of poor health and a shorter life expectancy compared with children of a healthy weight.
  • Children and their parents face barriers in accessing weight management services and there is limited evidence on which interventions work best to reduce obesity.
  • Many stakeholders argue that the UK Government’s current focus on individual behaviours, improving diet and restricting unhealthy food and drink marketing is insufficient to halve childhood obesity prevalence by 2030.
  • Successful reductions in childhood obesity may require a broader set of policy initiatives that span educational settings, town planning and health services.

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