Children's health in the UK is getting worse

A new report by the charity Food Foundation, published ahead of the upcoming UK general election, has marked some discouraging trends in the state of the health of the nation's children. The height of five year olds has been falling since 2013. Obesity among 10-11 year olds has increased by 30%. Type 2 diabetes among under 25s has increased by 22% in the past five years, and babies born today will enjoy a year less good health than babies born a decade ago.

The report cites an unhealthy environment, in which high-salt, high-sugar but nutritionally poor food is sold aggressively to children, as a factor. It also mentions the cost-of-living crisis, which began in 2021 and saw the prices of essential goods increasing faster than household incomes. A paper published by Parliament in November 2022 reports that the cost of government Covid-19 measures cost the UK citizen £4,600-£6,100. The government's budget deficit reached a peacetime record of 15% of GDP in 2020/21. The government also lost tax revenue to the tune of £79 bn less than forecast for 2020/21 due to lockdown. It is easy to see how the recent years have not been conducive to the good health of British children. With the NHS in crisis, it is hard to imagine things getting better for a generation growing up with worse health than their predecessors.


The NHS's numbers on the height of children in the UK show that the Covid years mark a decline. However, the longer-term statistics provided by the Food Foundation illustrate that children's heights ceased to grow and began to decrease from about the years 2012-13, so clearly this is the result of longer-term factors as well as the most recent crises to hit UK society. The Food Foundation report suggests that the droppage in child height coincides with the introduction of austerity measures. The economic doldrums also broadly overlap with this phenomenon: the UK entered a deep recession in the third quarter of 2021, far deeper than the recession that struck in 2008, which was - broadly speaking - the impetus for the austerity measures brought into place by successive governments beginning with that of David Cameron.

Statistics make it clear that the UK is suffering with regard to children's health worse than other comparable countries. An article in The Times reports that British five year olds are up to 70 cm shorter than their peers in other Western states. A Guardian article tells us that in 1985 British boys and girls ranked 69 out of 200 countries for average height aged five. At the time they were on average 111.4 cm and 111 cm tall respectively. By 2019, British boys were 102nd and girls 96th, with the average five year old boy measuring 112.5 cm and the average girl 111.7 cm.  By comparison in Bulgaria the average five year old boy measured 121 cm, and the average girl 118 cm. The Guardian article cites experts who claim factors include poor national diet, NHS cuts, and point out that height is a strong indicator of general living conditions, including illness and infection, stress, poverty, and sleep quality.

A chart provided by ITV shows us that the height of UK five year olds is far below that of their peers in Germany, the United States and France. German and French children appear to have been increasing in average height for many decades now. However in the United States, as in the UK, heights have been dwindling since the mid 2010s, although American five year olds (at around 114 cm, similar to France) are still considerably taller than their British equivalents.

Why Britain should be faring so badly when it comes to this broadly-meaningful measure of children's health, even compared to simlar countries that have faced the same sorts of challenges, is hard to answer. Even with celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver occasionally wading into the fray to attempt to improve the diets of the nation's children, we still seem to struggle with an essentially unhealthy attitude to food compared to other countries, even the USA. The UK is widely perceived from abroad as a country with bad food habits. For the sake of future generations we will have to take a good, long look in the mirror and ask ourselves whether we're really happy with what and how we eat.

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