Children in the UK are Shorter, Fatter, and Sicker Due to Poor Diet and Poverty, Report Suggests

This article aims to inform readers about the critical state of children's health in the UK and encourage policymakers to take immediate and effective action. It provides a comprehensive overview of the issue, supported by data and expert opinions

Children in the UK are Shorter, Fatter, and Sicker Due to Poor Diet and Poverty, Report Suggests
Photo by Brian Chan / Unsplash

Children in the UK are experiencing a troubling decline in health due to poor diet and rising poverty levels, according to a recent report by The Food Foundation. The report highlights alarming trends in children's health, including reduced average height, increased obesity rates, and a rise in diet-related illnesses such as type 2 diabetes.

The deterioration in children's health in the UK is closely linked to the widespread consumption of fast food and ultra-processed foods. These foods, often high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats, are heavily marketed and readily available, making them a convenient yet detrimental choice for many families, particularly those struggling with economic constraints.

Campaigners are urging the next government to take decisive action to reverse these trends and mitigate the long-term consequences on the NHS and overall public health.

Declining Growth and Nutritional Deficiencies

The report reveals that the average height of five-year-olds in the UK has been falling since 2013, with British children now ranking among the shortest in high-income countries. Data from the Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factor Collaboration shows that the height of children in the UK is declining, a trend not observed in other developed nations like the Netherlands, where children continue to grow taller on average.

The decline in height is indicative of broader nutritional deficiencies and socio-economic challenges. Essential nutrients such as calcium, zinc, and iron have seen a decrease in intake among children, contributing to stunted growth and other health issues. The report underscores that children from the most deprived backgrounds are disproportionately affected, often suffering from both undernutrition and obesity.

Rising Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes

Obesity among 10-11-year-olds in the UK has increased by 30% since 2006, with one in five children classified as obese by the time they leave primary school. The National Child Measurement Programme's data highlights the severity of this issue, which has far-reaching implications for children's physical and mental health.

Obesity is linked to higher levels of depression and anxiety, and increases the risk of developing long-term health conditions such as hypertension and hypercholesterolemia.

The rise in obesity has also led to a significant increase in type 2 diabetes among young people. The National Diabetes Audit reports a 22% rise in cases among under-25s over the past five years. This chronic condition, traditionally seen in adults, is now increasingly diagnosed in children, leading to severe complications including nerve damage, kidney disease, and even amputations.

The Rise of Fast Food Consumption

Fast food consumption has surged over the past few decades, driven by the aggressive marketing strategies of major food corporations and the proliferation of fast food outlets.

These establishments offer cheap, calorie-dense meals that are often lacking in essential nutrients. This shift in dietary habits has had profound implications for children's health, contributing significantly to the rise in obesity and diet-related illnesses.

Research shows that children who frequently consume fast food are more likely to develop unhealthy eating patterns that persist into adulthood. These patterns include a preference for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods, which can lead to weight gain and associated health issues such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

Ultra-Processed Foods: A Hidden Danger

Ultra-processed foods, which include sugary snacks, sodas, packaged baked goods, and ready-to-eat meals, have become staples in many households. These products are often marketed as convenient and affordable, but their health costs are substantial. They are typically high in added sugars, unhealthy fats, and artificial additives, while being low in essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

The consumption of ultra-processed foods is linked to a range of health problems. Studies have found that diets high in these foods are associated with increased risks of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and various chronic diseases. For children, these foods not only contribute to obesity but also affect cognitive development and academic performance.

Socio-Economic Factors and Food Choices

The aggressive promotion of fast food and ultra-processed foods disproportionately affects lower-income families. Economic constraints often force these families to opt for cheaper, less nutritious food options. The cost-of-living crisis has further exacerbated this issue, pushing healthy, fresh foods out of reach for many.

Moreover, food deserts—areas with limited access to affordable, healthy food options—are prevalent in many low-income neighborhoods. This lack of access makes it even more challenging for families to provide balanced, nutritious meals for their children. The result is a vicious cycle where poverty and poor diet reinforce each other, leading to deteriorating health outcomes.

Call for Government Action

Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Professor Sir Michael Marmot have both highlighted the devastating impact of poverty on children's health. They emphasize the need for urgent government intervention to address these issues and prevent a generation of children from suffering from preventable diet-related illnesses.

Campaigners from The Food Foundation are calling on the next government to implement strong, preventive health policies to improve access to affordable, nutritious food and create healthier food environments.

The report stresses that the failures of the current food system must be addressed through comprehensive policy changes that prioritize children's health and well-being

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has also voiced his support for these initiatives, stating that improving the quality of food is essential for reversing the trend of rising obesity and poor health among children. He argues that decisive leadership is needed to tackle these issues and ensure a healthier future for the next generation.


The decline in children's health in the UK is a preventable crisis that demands immediate action. Policymakers must recognize the critical role of the food system in shaping children's health and take bold steps to ensure that all children have access to nutritious food.

Investing in children's health is not only a moral imperative but also a strategic economic decision that can yield long-term benefits for society. By prioritizing children's health and making bold changes to the food system, we can build a healthier, more prosperous future for the next generation.


  • Food Foundation. "A Neglected Generation: Reversing the Decline in Children's Health in England." June 2024.
  • National Child Measurement Programme. Digital NHS.
  • Non-Communicable Diseases Risk Factor Collaboration. "Data Downloads: Height."
  • Office for National Statistics. "Health State Life Expectancy All Ages UK."