Government strategies to cut childhood obesity have ‘had little impact’ for nearly a decade

Government action plans to cut childhood obesity have had ‘little impact’ and numbers of overweight children have in fact risen, a damning report has found. 

Childhood obesity rates have risen by a fifth in 10 to 11-year-olds and remained the same for 4 to 5-year-olds.

Figures compiled by the National Audit Office revealed obesity in older children has crept up from 18.7 per cent in 2009 to 20.2 per cent in 2019, and in four to five-year-olds it has remained stable at 9.7 per cent. 

The gap between most and least deprived areas has also widened for older children, jumping from 10 per cent in 2009 to nearly 14 per cent in 2019.

Successive governments’ attempts have been described as having ‘little impact’ on rates of childhood obesity in the report.

Experts slammed the results as ‘worrying’ and warned that ministers ‘do not seem to be learning from the failure of past efforts’. 

An estimated 1.4 million children aged 2 to 15 years old are obese in the UK, putting them at risk of a developing illnesses including cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. It is estimated to cost the NHS as much as £6.1 billion to treat every year.

Childhood obesity rates among those aged 10 to 11 have crept up over the past decade from 18.7 per cent to 20.2 per cent, a report by the National Audit Office has found (stock image)

A graph from the report shows obesity levels creeping up despite a government target to bring the rate down and halve it by 2030

A graph from the report shows obesity levels creeping up despite a government target to bring the rate down and halve it by 2030

The report, published today, also warns the government is set to miss its target for reducing sugars in some drinks by 20 per cent by 2020. This is despite an intervention from the Treasury to slap a tax on sugary drinks.

Obesity rates among children are highest in parts of central London and the north west, according to the report, where they stand at 11 to 14.3 per cent. 

They are lowest in areas of the midlands, Surrey and Dorset, dropping to between 5.4 and 7.9 per cent.

‘Successive governments have implemented strategies to tackle obesity with a strong focus on children,’ the report says.

‘In 2008, the government set an ambition to reduce the proportion of overweight and obese children to 2000 rates by 2020. In 2011, the new government set a new ambition to achieve a sustained downward trend in the level of excess weight in children by 2020.

‘These strategies had little impact on childhood obesity.

‘The Department [of Health] has not fully evaluated whether these past strategies reduced childhood obesity. Therefore, it will struggle to prioritise actions of apply lessons learned from past strategies to its new approach with confidence.’

The current government has stuck to an aim set in 2018 to halve childhood obesity levels by 2030.

Dr Layla McCay, the director at the NHS Confederation, said the report was ‘disappointing’. 

‘This is such an important moment for effective action, but it risks becoming lost amidst reorganisation and delays,’ she said.


English children are fatter than ever – official data revealed last October that one in every 25 10 to 11-year-olds are severely obese, the fattest possible category.

And out of around 556,000 children of primary school-leaving age in the UK, 170,000 are overweight to some degree, figures showed in May last year.

More than one in five 11-year-olds are obese – equivalent to around 111,000 children – and being so fat means they are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer or have a stroke.

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health say children should be weighed every year at school because ‘danger is on the horizon’ and the UK is lagging behind the rest of the EU in tackling obesity.

Experts have also warned children gain weight ‘at a drastic rate’ when they’re at school. 

Sugar in food is known to be contributing to the swelling waistlines of children, with huge amounts of popular foods crammed full of sugar.

A sugar tax has reduced the effects of some soft drinks, but breakfast cereals can still contain more than 70 per cent of an entire day’s sugar in a single bowl.

Even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contain more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.  

‘At a time when obesity is in the spotlight for putting people with Covid-19 at greater risk of needing hospital admission or intensive care, it has never been clearer that an effective approach is needed to reduce obesity, which exacerbates health inequalities – and is estimated to cost the NHS £6.1 billion. 

‘We back the NAO’s recommendations that tackling child obesity needs to be a cross-government initiative and also that the Government should target funding to deprived areas where there is a particular risk of childhood obesity, empowering local leaders to take the right actions for their population.’

The Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, Ian Hudspeth, called for more powers to be granted to local authorities to help them tackle obesity levels.  

‘Childhood obesity is one of the biggest public health challenges we face and this report is another stark reminder of the urgent need for radical action to combat this,’ he said.

‘Councils are already working hard to help their communities live healthier and more active lives, including initiatives such as healthy food schemes in schools and nurseries and specialised weight management services.

‘Greater powers for councils are also needed to tackle the clustering of existing takeaways and restricting junk food advertising, alongside extra investment in other council-run programmes such as exercise referral schemes and offering free or reduced-cost sport, if we are to meet the Government’s ambition of halving childhood obesity by 2030.’

Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at Obesity Health Alliance, said: ‘We agree that progress by the government to address childhood obesity has been slow and we would strongly welcome the introduction of procedures to ensure other government departments are held to account to deliver this vital programme – improving children’s health must be everyone’s responsibility.

‘However it’s wrong to suggest that the policies to address childhood obesity may not the right ones based on such a brief analysis. There is a strong and consistent body of evidence regarding the highly influential role marketing of all kinds plays in steering children’s food choices. That’s why leading health charities, medical colleges and health experts all support regulation to limit unhealthy food advertising and promotions, as the government has committed to introduce by 2022.’

The UK has one of the worst childhood obesity rates in the western world, behind only Portugal, Spain and Italy

The UK has one of the worst childhood obesity rates in the western world, behind only Portugal, Spain and Italy

Eleanor Pearce Willis, Senior Policy Officer at Diabetes UK, said: ‘This report further shows that progress on addressing and tackling childhood obesity has been slow, and significant further action is needed across government. 

‘The evidence-based measures proposed in the government’s obesity strategy in July 2020 should be implemented without delay, but they also need to go further to end childhood obesity.

‘Local authorities also have an important role to play in addressing childhood obesity and need to be properly funded to achieve this. Improving children’s health must be everyone’s responsibility and Diabetes UK will continue to put pressure on the government.’