Over-eating and a lack of exercise mean Britain's young people are storing up serious health problems

More than half a million British schoolchildren are obese, according to a major new study that warns of soaring rates of diabetes, liver failure and heart problems among the young.

Researchers say that about 160,000 children are displaying signs that they will develop heart disease. At least 150,000 have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels. And a similar number are likely to develop liver disease early in life.

The revelation that over-eating and lack of exercise has placed the health of the nation's young people in jeopardy and made 700,000 of them obese comes from a Europe-wide study by the London-based International Obesity Taskforce.

The study calculates that 28 per cent of boys and 36 per cent of girls in the UK are now overweight or obese and estimates that the number of overweight and obese children in Europe will top 26 million within four years. It will then increase at the rate of 1.3 million a year.

The research also shows for the first time that there are signs of Type 2 (late onset) diabetes in 4,000 children. The disease is normally associated with old age, but the researchers warn that it could strike 60,000 youngsters in the near future.

Although the number of obese children has been increasing, and it's known that obesity is associated with disease, there have been difficulties in calculating the scale of health problems because in most cases symptoms are not yet apparent.

With little or no screening for signs of high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and diabetes, most children and their parents remain unaware of any problems. Even those who have Type 2 diabetes will not yet know it.

But statistical analysis of 39 health and demographic studies convinced the researchers that the continent now faces a crisis that was avoidable. The findings will be published in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity this week.

Dr Tim Lobstein, who led the project for the taskforce, said: "More than 160,000 obese children in the UK, are likely to show a range of indicators for cardiovascular disease, including high blood pressure, raised blood cholesterol levels, and insulin resistance."

The research showed that about 58,000 British children have impaired glucose tolerance, an early sign of an increased risk of diabetes, and that around 150,000 will have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

"The glucose intolerance means their pancreas is not able to respond properly to sugar," said Dr Lobstein.

"These children are unlikely to be aware of the problem. In the early stages of diabetes you basically don't show symptoms. There are a whole range of health problems these children are walking around with."

He added that the "burden of disease" among obese children was high. "Paediatric services need to consider their ability to screen and treat children if we are to avoid a substantial rise in chronic obesity-related disease among young adults over the next decade," he explained.

Last week, a study by Diabetes UK claimed that as many as 1,000 children had Type 2 diabetes, which can lead to blindness, amputations and heart problems in later life. Now that appears to be a conservative estimate. The charity's annual conference was also told by University of Leicester experts that only 37 per cent of children in urban areas now walk to school.

Almost half admitted watching television or playing computer games for four or more hours a day.

Douglas Smallwood, the chief executive of Diabetes UK, said: "The potential long-term impact of this is frightening."


160,000 are at risk of heart disease

1 in 15 are obese

36% of girls are overweight

4,000 display signs of diabetes

37% walk to school

150,000 have high blood pressure

28% of boys are overweight

60,000 are glucose intolerant