Researchers from King’s College London compared the anonymised electronic health care records of more than 370,500 children aged two to 15 between 1993 and 2013. They found the number who were overweight or obese increased by around 8% a year during the first decade of the study but between 2004 and 2013 rates slowed substantially to just 0.4% a year.
Commenting on the findings, Soil Association policy officer Rob Percival said: "These figures may indicate that public health efforts to tackle childhood obesity are having an impact, but there is no room for complacency: one in three children in the UK is still overweight, and obesity rates among the poorest households continued to worsen.
"To turn the tide on diet-related ill health we need greater emphasis on early intervention, particularly in schools and early years settings. Schools and nurseries are in a unique position to equip children and young people with the skills and knowledge they need to maintain lifelong healthy and sustainable eating habits.
"The Food for Life Partnership is working with 5,000 schools to transform their food culture, supporting them to get children cooking, growing, and learning about where food comes from. Independent evaluation showed a 28% increase in the number of children eating five or more portions of fruit and vegetables in participating primary schools, with 45% of parents also eating more vegetables as a result of the programme."
Despite the levelling off, almost four in ten people aged 11 to 15 are currently at risk from damaging levels of fat. Experts have called for extra efforts to be made to rescue this ‘lost generation’ of overweight teenagers.
Among both sexes and all age groups, the proportion of children judged too heavy was around a third in 2013. The researchers said the fact obesity rates had stabilised suggested public health campaigns may be starting to work.
However Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: "The real problem is among children aged 11 to 15 who are really getting fatter. Efforts should be made to reduce the number of women who start off their pregnancies overweight and obese. This starts the whole cycle in children: fat women produce fat babies who are at greater risk of many health problems from the beginning of life."