MORE than one in 10 youngsters are already clinically obese when they start primary schools in East Lancashire, according to latest NHS figures.

And by the time children head to secondary school, the number in this category has doubled to a fifth.

Health bosses said the problem was increasing and approaching epidemic proportions, despite high-profile healthy eating and exercise campaigns.

They said too many children were leading sedentary lifestyles and living on a diet of ready meals and fatty takeaways.

Healthy eating classes are now being promoted across the area for two to five year-olds.

Medics fear that toddlers are storing up future problems with heart disease, strokes and diabetes.

In reception classes 11.4 per cent of arrivals in Burnley are obese, 10.8 per cent in Hyndburn and 9.5 per cent apiece in Pendle and Rossendale.

This rises to 20 per cent in Rossendale and Burnley by the end of primary school, 18.7 per cent in Hyndburn and 17.8 per cent in Pendle.

Obesity level for reception class children in Blackburn with Darwen is 10.5 per cent and the rate for Year 6 pupils 17.8 per cent.

The figures are above the national average.

In East Lancashire, another 10 to 15 per cent of children are classed as overweight, the next category down from obese.

Health workers are now going into children’s centres to encourage children to mimic ‘healthy heroes’ and ditch sugary snacks.

Ribble Valley MP Nigel Evans has warned youngsters of the dangers of overeating and lack of exercise.

He said: “If you spend too much time in front of the Xbox then you could end up in a wooden box.

“The five hours a week recommended for physical education should be a minimum for all youngsters.

“If young people only knew the long-term damage they could be doing by what they are eating, and this is down to their schools and families.”

Janet Walton, public health development head at NHS East Lancashire, said becoming overweight had almost become the norm.

She said: “With one in 10 reception children being obese, and a third of primary school children overweight, it’s difficult for parents to see whether their child is unhealthy or not, as they will compare them to other children.

“We have so many takeaways in East Lancashire, and for many families where the parents work, ready meals are a regular feature in a child’s weekly diet.”

Joanne Smith, a health improvement specialist from Lancashire Care NHS Foundation Trust, added: “We are not the ‘weight police’ but the two things that we are worried about are inappropriate sized portions for a child’s age and also the levels of activity.

“Children nowadays tend to sit in front of the TV and computer rather than play outside.

"So by simply getting off them up and about skipping, or running around is a great way to get children up and active.

“If we can get the younger generation eating well and improving their levels of activity then we can fend off the risk of heart disease and strokes in later life.”

The ‘healthy heroes’ scheme, which includes family healthy eating games, stickers and hand puppets like Freddie The Frog, was first trialled in East Lancashire and is now being rolled out across the county.

Natalie Cross, NHS East Lancs health development manager, added: “There is an association between adults and children - basically if the parents are obese then there is an increased likelihood of children being obese.”