MORE than a fifth of Somerset children are overweight or obese when they start primary school - with the proportion rising to almost a third by the time they leave.

Health experts blame unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks and have launched a campaign urging parents to take control of their children's snacking.

The NHS Change4Life initiative aims to persuade parents to reduce their youngsters' sugar intake - currently around seven cubes daily, against the recommended maximum of five for four to six-year-olds and up to six for seven to ten-year-olds.

The 'Look for 100 calorie snacks, two a day max' project comes as alarming figures show 22.2 per cent of Somerset primary reception pupils are overweight or obese - the regional average is 23.1 per cent - while 30.2 per cent of Somerset Year 6 children fall into the same category, slightly above the South West figure of 30.1 per cent.

Children in our county eat almost 400 biscuits a year; more than 120 cakes, buns and pastries; around 100 portions of sweets; nearly 70 of both chocolate bars and ice creams; all washed down with more than 150 juice pouches and cans of fizzy drinks.

A Public Health England spokesman said: "On average, children are consuming at least three unhealthy snacks and sugary drinks a day, with around a third consuming four or more. The overall result is that children consume three times more sugar than is recommended.

"The new Change4Life campaign encourages parents in the South West to 'Look for 100 calorie snacks, two a day max' to help them purchase healthier snacks.

"Parents will be signposted and given special offers on a range of healthier snacks, including fruit and vegetables at selected supermarkets.

"They can also get money-off vouchers to help them try healthier snack options, including malt loaf, lower sugar fromage frais, and drinks with no added sugar."

Justine Womack, PHE South West's health improvement team childhood obesity lead, said: "Changing our children’s snacking habits can be a real challenge and we want to make it easier for families to find healthier options.

"By asking parents to 'Look for 100 calorie snacks, two a day max', we’re helping them to give healthier snacks, while giving them less frequently.

"It really is just a case of swapping unhealthy snacks as much as possible."

PHE's chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone said: "The true extent of children’s snacking habits is greater than the odd biscuit or chocolate bar. Children are having unhealthy snacks throughout the day."

The Change4Life Food Scanner app shows how many calories, sugar, salt and saturated fat is in their food to help make healthier choices. It can be downloaded from the App Store or Google Play.

PHE is working with the food industry to cut 20 per cent of sugar from the products children consume most by 2020.