MORE than one in seven five-year-olds in Scotland is clinically overweight or obese and could benefit from help with their diet and exercise, latest figures show.
Official statistics have revealed that 14.9 per cent of primary one children were classified as overweight, obese or severely obese in 2011-12.
Higher rates of weight problems were found in boys and also in children from the most deprived communities.
Officials now hope to see rates falling after obesity levels have been static for around a decade.
Campaigners called for more action to prevent children becoming overweight in the first place with advice to pregnant women and in schools.
The Scottish Government has set an aim, known as a HEAT target, for almost 15,000 children to be offered “healthy weight intervention” between April 2011 and March 2014.
Dr Rachael Wood, consultant in public health medicine at the Scottish Government’s Information Services Division (ISD), said in many cases the interventions would be small, but could make a big difference.
“It is not formal boot camp interventions to all these kids,” she said. “But it is some preliminary discussions around healthy family eating and the kinds of exercise levels that children require to stay healthy and about appropriate limitation of sedentary time.”
Dr Wood said it was not as simple as saying all children in the clinically overweight or obese category would need some kind of treatment to deal with their weight issues, as some may be heavier but have more muscle mass than others.
But she said in general those in the higher weight groups were at the stage where it might be beneficial to their health to take action.
And she added: “When children are in the severely obese clinical category that is likely to indicate the need for some clinical intervention.”
A health survey in 1990 showed that 9 per cent of children were classified as clinically overweight or obese.
But Dr Wood said during the 1990s the rate of weight gain rose rapidly and since around 2000 had hovered around the 15 per cent mark.
She said while there was some variation between health boards in obesity levels, the biggest differences were found between boys and girls and the richest and poorest communities.
For boys, 15.3 per cent were classed as clinically overweight or obese, compared to 14.5 per cent of girls.
And 17.8 per cent of children in the most deprived group fell into this category, compared to 11.5 per cent in the least deprived.
The report also included data for the percentage of children who are underweight, with an average of around 1.3 per cent.
Dr Wood said: “Children from the most deprived areas are at quite a higher substantially increased risk than the more affluent children. They are particularly at risk of the very high body mass index.”
Dr Wood said that while the weight-gain “epidemic” had stabilised in the past ten years, they hoped to see levels dropping.
Tam Fry, from the Child Growth Foundation and National Obesity Forum, said a key target for efforts to reduce obesity needed to focus on deprived communities. “What is happening in the big cities is driven by the economic downturn and people not being able to afford proper food for their children,” he said.
“That is responsible for this difference between the most deprived and least deprived areas.”
Mr Fry said giving advice to the families of overweight children was not enough on its own to tackle the problem.
He said the battle with obesity had to start before birth, with action to cut the number of obese pregnant women, which could have an impact on their children’s weight, as well as starting early with education in schools.
Scottish Labour MSP Dr Richard Simpson said: “These figures are concerning particularly as, by the age of five, we can see the stark impact of health inequalities on our children. We need to ensure that every effort is made to help parents, nurseries and schools provide healthy and balanced diets for children.”
Sport minister Shona Robison welcomed the small increase in children classed as being of a healthy weight – 76.9 per cent, up from 76.7 the previous year. But she added: “A key focus of our action to cut obesity is to focus on early years, where evidence suggests the greatest impact can be made.”