FIVE-YEAR-OLDS from the poorest parts of Scotland are twice as likely to be obese, as the latest figures reveal the gulf between the most and least deprived children is now wider than ever.

The statistics reveal a dramatic shift over the past 17 years, with obesity rates climbing steadily to record high among poorest Primary 1 pupils at the same time as it has declined to the lowest on record for those from the most affluent households.

HeraldScotland: Camley's Cartoon: Food labelling callCamley's Cartoon: Food labelling call

This has resulted in "substantial inequalities in child unhealthy weight across Scotland", according to the Scottish Government's own health statistics body ISD Scotland.

READ MORE: NHS Highland whistleblowers say they have been 'palmed off' by Jeane Freeman

Campaigners said the findings were "shocking" as they urged ministers to urgently push through legislation banning retailers from selling junk food at special offer prices.

Professor Linda Bauld, the Edinburgh University-based prevention expert for Cancer Research UK, said: “It’s shocking so many very young children are at risk of being overweight or obese.

“But it doesn’t need to be like this. The Scottish Government has a role to play here and must ensure that planned legislation to restrict junk food promotions is introduced and passed before the next Scottish Parliament elections."

When the statistics for five-year-olds starting school were first collected in 2001/2, obesity rates were roughly the same regardless of deprivation.

At that time, 9.9 per cent of youngsters from the most deprived fifth of the population were considered "at risk of obesity" - meaning their body mass index (BMI) put them among the heaviest 5% for their age group.

This compared to 10.1% for pupils from the least deprived category.

By 2018/19, however, a record 13.7% of the most deprived five-year-olds were at risk of obesity, compared to just 6.5% of P1 pupils from the wealthiest backgrounds.

The gap between the two groups is the widest since the data was first collected 17 years ago.

The ISD Scotland report notes that a similar pattern has also been seen in England, where statistics also show "a strong, and increasing, association between deprivation and risk of overweight and obesity in childhood".

The figures also cast doubt on the Scottish Government's ability to halve childhood obesity by its 2030 target.

Once differences in socioeconomic background are excluded, the overall percentage of 'obese' five-year-olds has barely changed in 17 years - from 10.15 in 2001/2 to 10.2% in 2018/19.

READ MORE: Dentist 'put through hell' over £53k misclaiming allegation 

Notably, the risk of being underweight - a BMI in the lowest 2% for the age group - has declined but remained almost identical regardless of background.

Over the past 17 years, it has fallen from 1.7% for the most deprived five-year-olds and 1.6% for the least deprived, to 1% for both groups.

Overweight or obese children are much more likely to struggle with their weight and associated health problems as adults.

A spokesman for the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh called for earlier intervention adding: "The College wants more investment in schools to help children learn about healthy eating and lifestyle habits, and to enable them access to their five-a-day of fruit and vegetables.

"Initiatives such as the Daily Mile and school running and exercise clubs should also be encouraged, promoted and supported.”

READ MORE: Woman accused of saying photo of boy on hospital floor was 'fake' suffers death threats 

Lorraine Tulloch, programme lead at Obesity Action Scotland said it was "concerning" that the gap in obesity rates for five-year-olds was now the widest since records began.

"We need to do more to protect our children," said Ms Tulloch. "Ambitious action is urgently required. The Scottish Government have committed to halving childhood obesity by 2030, but we need more actions to improve our food environment if we want to achieve that.”

In July this year, NHS Health Scotland published new national standards for weight management services for children and young people. The Scottish Government has put £1.7 million towards its implementation.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We are determined to improve Scotland’s diet and our ambition is to halve child obesity by 2030 and significantly reduce diet-related health inequalities.

“Wide-ranging action includes the introduction of a Restricting Foods Promotions Bill before the end of this Parliamentary session to restrict junk food promotions that encourage impulse buying and over-consumption.

“The Scottish Government and COSLA will establish a new national health body, Public Health Scotland, on 1 April 2020, which will have a leading role in supporting work to tackle health inequalities.”