THOUSANDS of Scottish children are clinically or severely obese when they start school, official figures have revealed. In Primary One (P1) last year there were around 3,500 children whose weight gave rise to concern, an increase of almost 400 on the previous year.
Authorities are now stepping in to offer these youngsters help to get their weight under control, which could include advice on healthy eating, an exercise regime or even a referral to more intensive “child healthy weight services”.
Ayrshire is a particular problem area according to the figures, while children in more affluent areas such as East Renfrewshire and East Dunbartonshire fare best.
Scottish Government opponents last night branded the situation “deplorable” and “another failure of SNP health policy”.
Scotland’s growing obesity problem has been blamed on sedentary lifestyles, lack of exercise and the rise of fast-food culture. The problem is a particular concern among young people as it can lead to life-shortening conditions such as Type 2 diabetes.
The official health service statistics released yesterday showed there were 3,492 P1 youngsters classed as clinically obese or severely obese in 2013-14, up by almost 400 on 2012-13. This accounts for about one in 15 children of P1 age.
The figure rises to 8,458 when taking into account those youngsters who were overweight – also up by more than 500 on the previous year. This accounts for around one in six youngsters.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND MOBILE APPS
Scottish Conservative health spokesman Jackson Carlaw said: “This is a depressing reflection on another failure in SNP health policy. It likes to talk up its focus on childhood health, but the statistics are telling a completely different story. Obesity is fast becoming as significant a public health challenge as drinking and smoking. If a generation of youngsters are setting out on a path of poor diets and supine lifestyles, it’s going to be very difficult to change those habits in adulthood.
“If we had more health visitors out and about in Scotland’s homes, problems would be spotted earlier and these figures would begin to move in the right direction.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Jim Hume MSP said: “It is deplorable that so many young children are considered to be severely obese by the time they begin primary school.
“With a clear link between a child’s background and their prospects of a healthy weight, it is evident that targeted support is crucial in efforts to give more children the best start in life.
“The SNP in the Scottish Government took its eye off the ball to focus on its referendum campaign and as a result, some schools are yet to be brought over the finish line in delivering the SNP’s PE target. This will be fundamental in efforts to tackle childhood obesity.”
The problem gets worse in poorer areas, where 73.2 per cent of primary one children are classed as being a healthy weight compared with 81.1 per cent of children in better-off neighbourhoods.
John Dickie of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) said austerity cuts are likely to be a factor.
He said: “Low-income families have been under pressure and families have been struggling to afford both health foods and to travel to stores where maybe they can get that healthy option.
“It means when they are spending on food they often have to go for the cheaper but less healthy option. We do know that low-income families have been hit very hard to the value of their benefits and tax credits and through stagnating wages and hours they can work. That squeeze has played out on their food and means they go for the cheaper and not always the most healthy.”
The worst area is North Ayrshire, where almost one in four (23.1 per cent) pupils are classed as overweight or obese while almost one in ten (8.5 per cent) are obese. In neighbouring East Ayrshire, one in five (19.9 per cent) youngsters is overweight or obese.
However, more affluent areas such as East Renfrewshire, which includes leafy Glasgow suburbs such as Giffnock and Clarkston, had fewer than one in ten pupils who were overweight or obese (8 per cent), while East Dunbartonshire, which includes Milngavie and Bearsden, is also well below the national average on 9.2 per cent.
Girls are in better shape than boys, with 77.2 per cent of girls classified as a healthy weight compared to 75.7 per cent of boys. The figures released by the government yesterday go back over the past decade and show there has been no progress in tackling childhood obesity.
They show the number of children who are overweight or obese has remained broadly similar at around 14 per cent to 16 per cent, or one in six children.
There has also been a slight rise in the number of children who are underweight, which has gone up to 218 last year from 163 the year before.
The figures follow a report published by Scotland’s chief statistician last year which showed that, between 1995 and 2012, the proportion of people aged 16 to 64 who were overweight or obese increased from 52.4 per cent to 61.9 per cent. The figures suggested 16.8 per cent of children were at risk of obesity in 2012.
The proportion of children classed as overweight increased slightly, from 29.1 per cent in 1998 to 30.6 per cent last year. Among children, 73 per cent of boys and 68 per cent of girls were doing recommended levels of physical activity.
And the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes had continued to increase. At the end of 2012 there were 258,570 people diagnosed with diabetes, 4.9 per cent of the population. More than 88 per cent of all cases were Type 2.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said ministers are committed to addressing obesity across Scotland.
“That must start with our children and young people,” she said.
“Since 2008 the Scottish Government has committed £6 million in ongoing funding to NHS boards to deliver child healthy weight interventions with schools as well as individual families.
“These direct, face-to-face interactions with parents, families and schools are designed to help address problems children may be experiencing with their weight. Between 2011 and March 2014 there were 16,820 interventions completed – 12.8 per cent higher than the agreed target.”
Ministers are also spending more than £7.5m between
2012-15 on a range of projects to encourage healthy eating. The Healthier Scotland Cooking Bus is among these, while the Scottish Government Diet Campaign began last month to provide advice to families on how to access and eat a healthier diet.
Emilie Combet: Parents hold key to helping their children stay healthy
Kids are getting fatter, like everybody else in Scotland, at a rate similar to adults over the past 30 years. That tells us that the epidemic affects people of all ages, with obesity in adults not caused by obesity in children. However, the same influences which cause weight gain (not enough physical activity, and too much energy-dense foods) are transmitted to children by adults, and by the food industry (which is controlled by adults).
Children are very vulnerable in this way, and obesity in children carries a risk of psychological burden, and important health risks if carried on through life.
Eating a lot of sugar is not desirable, but sugar is not uniquely to be blamed for weight gain and obesity – it is the combination of high sugar and high fat, as often found in processed foods. Schools have an important but small part to play, with the parents having to play the biggest part. It only works if parents are involved. The keys to avoiding and correcting obesity in children are for families to use their legs every day, and to eat together, building meals from varied, natural, non-processed low-energy foods, with vegetables as a principal component.
• Emilie Combet is a lecturer in nutrition at the University of Glasgow