The Food Foundation, alongside food experts and campaigners, is calling for the next government to address the decline in children’s health.

It follows the release of a report by the charity, which shows:

  • 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. One in five children are living with obesity by the time they leave primary school
  • Type 2 diabetes in young people has tripled since 2012
  • Babies born today will enjoy a year less good health than babies born a decade ago

The report assessed data from various 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. It reveals a steady decline in children’s health across multiple metrics amongst children compared to young adults.

Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and food campaigner, said, "Decades of government neglect has meant kids are suffering from more obesity-related illnesses, leading to average heights shrinking and living shorter lives – they’re not being given the chance to be happy, healthy people. And they deserve so much more than that.

"We need to reverse this trend if we’re to have the healthiest generation of kids, and to do that we need to take a serious look at the food that fuels us. And right now, it’s not pretty.

"There’s no silver bullet to fix this, which is why we need a comprehensive approach that doesn’t just tinker around the edges but revolutionises the rules and fundamentally improves the quality of food across the board. The leader who understands this and gets serious about child health will be the person who turned the tide on obesity – and won."

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

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."

The charity said the findings raise questions regarding the nutritional quality of food that children are eating. A 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. Healthier foods are over twice as expensive per calorie as 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 veg.

Failure to reverse the current trajectory will lead to a generation burdened throughout their lives by diet-related illness and the consequences that bring 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.

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."

Calls for change in Parliament

The report's authors and supporters have called on all political parties to recognise the importance of the food system in shaping the nation. They said urgent action is required to ensure that every child can access the nutrition needed to grow up healthily.

Gordon Brown, former prime minister, 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."

Henry Dimbleby, the former government food tsar and author of the National Food Strategy, said, "The decline in children’s health shown clearly in this report is a shocking and deeply sad result of the failures of the food system in the UK.

"We need the next government to take decisive action to make healthy and sustainable food affordable, stem the constant flow of junk food, and realise that investing in children’s health is an investment in the future of the country."

Baroness Anne Jenkin, 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."

James Bethell, Conservative peer in the House of Lords, said, "The health of the nation is going backwards and food plays a central role in this decline. It’s costing us a fortune, in money and happiness, so it’s time to act.

"This powerful report gives a clear account of the impact of poor food and bad eating habits on the children of Britain.

"Any new government should take the lessons to heart and immediate swing into action so we can change direction away from illness and towards a healthier, prosperous nation."