Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be overweight from as early as pre-school age onwards than their more advantaged peers.
A study of more than 40,000 children from Ireland, Britain and Portugal found that the inequalities in children's body mass index (BMI) emerge during pre-school years and continue to widen across childhood and into early adolescence. That happened in all three countries.
The research, conducted by Trinity College Dublin and the University of Porto as part of an EU-funded project, examined data on height and weight from 41,399 children across the countries. The researchers used the child's mother's highest level of education as a marker of socio-economic position.
The research shows that while there was no difference in BMI in infancy, differences emerge in pre-school age (3-5 years), with children whose mother did not progress beyond primary or secondary level education gaining body mass at a faster rate than those whose mother progressed to third level.
Among the key findings of the study is that in Ireland, at the age of 13, boys and girls whose mother had a primary-level education measured an average of 0.9kg and 1.3kg heavier, respectively, than children whose mother had a university level background.
The study noted that children who are obese in early life are also more likely to maintain this status into adolescence and adulthood, increasing their risk for chronic disease later in life.
Research Assistant Professor (Psychology) at Trinity College, Dr Cathal McCrory, the lead author of the paper said that the findings show that children from less advantaged backgrounds are facing a higher prospect of disease from much earlier in life than their counterparts.
"This study shows that children from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds gain body mass more quickly than their more advantaged peers, are more likely to be overweight or obese from pre-school age onwards, and are more likely to become obese if previously non-overweight. They are quite literally carrying a heavier burden of disease from much earlier in life," he said.
"These findings reinforce the necessity of challenging the childhood obesity epidemic at early ages as these patterns are difficult to change once they have become entrenched. Urgent government action is now required to understand the material, social, and structural barriers that contribute to these stark socio-economic differences in obesity risk."