HEALTH and food experts and campaigners including Gordon Brown, Michael Marmot and The Food Foundation are calling for the next government to urgently address the steady decline in children’s health that has been seen over the last two decades.

A new report from The Food Foundation, A Neglected Generation: Reversing the decline in children’s health in England, contains shocking statistics which show that in England:

  • The height of five-year olds has been falling since 2013, with UK children shorter than those in nearly all other high income countries (with boys ranked shortest and girls second shortest).
  • Obesity among 10-11 year olds has increased by 30 per cent since 2006, with one in five children living with obesity by the time they leave primary school.
  • Type 2 diabetes in young people has tripled since 2012. Despite previously known as adult onset diabetes, the obesity epidemic led to the first cases being diagnosed in adolescents in the UK in 2000
  • Babies born today will enjoy good health for a year less than babies born a decade ago

The report, which assesses data from a range of sources, including the Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factor Collaboration, the National Child Measurement Programme, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Office for National Statistics, reveals a steady decline in children’s health across multiple metrics amongst today’s children compared to today’s young adults.

The report highlights a deeply worrying increase in conditions driven by calorie-dense diets, such as obesity and type 2 diabetes, but also highlights the less talked about results of poor-quality diets and undernutrition, which are increasingly impacting on our children and are co-existing with obesity.

The findings raise questions regarding the nutritional quality of food that children are eating. Poor diet could be due to a range of factors, from high levels of poverty and deprivation to the aggressive promotion of cheap junk food by the food industry.

The Food Foundation found that in January 2024, 20 per cent of households with children in the UK reported experiencing food insecurity. We also know that more healthy foods are over twice as expensive per calorie than less healthy foods and 33 per cent of food and soft drink advertising spend goes on unhealthy products, compared to one per cent on fruit and vegetables.

Failure to reverse the current trajectory will lead to a generation burdened throughout their lives by diet-related illness and the consequences that come with it: the mental health impact of living with disease, an overwhelmed healthcare system that is unable to treat people effectively and economic inactivity that weakens GDP.

Authors and supporters of the report are calling on all political parties to recognise the importance of the food system in shaping our nation and to commit to taking urgent action to ensure that every child can access the nutrition needed to grow up healthily.

Former prime minister, Gordon Brown, said: “When the height of five-year olds has been falling since 2013, and we’re learning babies born today will enjoy a year less good health than babies born a decade ago, every mother and father in the land will be concerned and shocked at what is happening to children through lack of nutrition living through the hungry 2020s in food bank Britain.”

Michael Marmot, director of the UCL Institute of Health Equity and professor of epidemiology and public health said: “Over a century of history has led us to expect continuous improvements in health. Over the last dozen years that has changed. Healthy life expectancy has declined. Quite simply, people’s fundamental human needs are not being met. We used to think of the combination of undernutrition and obesity as a feature of low and middle income countries. We are now seeing it in Britain in 2024”.

Anna Taylor, Executive Director at The Food Foundation, said: “The health problems being suffered by the UK’s children due to poor diet are entirely preventable. This is a national embarrassment. We hope this election year will mark a turning point. Politicians across the political spectrum must prioritise policies that give all children access to the nutrition they need to grow up healthily, as should be their right.”

Baroness Anne Jenkin, a Conservative Peer in the House of Lords, said: “The state of the nation’s health, especially our children’s, has never been worse and almost no one is talking about it. This is a timebomb waiting to explode if action isn’t taken. I welcome this report.”

* Read: A Neglected Generation: Reversing the decline in children’s health in England here.

* Source: The Food Foundation