More than a third of teenagers in the UK are starting adult life overweight or obese, according to research.
Scientists at University College London said those from poorest families are at the greatest risk, with rates of obesity twice as high among this group compared to those from the richest households.
According to the report published by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies (CLS) at the UCL Social Research Institute, one in five (21%) young people were obese at age 17, and a further one in seven (14%) were overweight.
The data, which was collected between 2018-19, is based on a nationally representative group of over 10,000 people who have been taking part in the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS) since they were born in 2000-02.
Report co-author Dr David Bann, of the CLS, added: ‘Obesity rates in the UK have been a concern for decades and these high levels among 17-year-olds, affecting the disadvantaged most, suggest that previous policy initiatives haven’t worked.
‘Without ambitious policy action, we expect this concerning trend to continue in future and have long-term health consequences.
‘Action on obesity now will help to protect the NHS in future.
‘The planned closure of Public Health England leaves us with a pressing need for an independent properly funded organisation which has obesity strategy as part of its remit.’
The findings are based on the participant’s body mass index, which according to the researchers, is widely used as a simple and reliable way of finding out whether a person is a healthy weight for their height.
However, the team added that it is possible that some cohort members were misclassified as being overweight or obese due to high lean muscle mass levels instead of high fat mass levels.
The experts said they found obesity rates among teenagers to be ‘strongly linked to household income, with those from the least well-off households the worst affected’.
They said that levels of overweight remained broadly stable between ages 14 and 17, at around 14% at both ages, and were similar in different household income groups.
Report co-author Professor Emla Fitzsimons, of the CLS, said: ‘It’s a major concern that so many young people are an unhealthy weight and are starting off adult life facing an increased risk of greater long-term physical and psychological health problems.
‘Levels of obesity among this generation are alarming, and are even more worrying given emerging evidence on links between excess weight and Covid-19.’
The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.