Published time: February 27, 2014 19:46.47
Reuters / Toby Melville
One in three 11-year-olds is overweight or obese across Europe, a detailed analysis on obesity levels in 53 countries has shown. Action needs to be taken “to stop overweight becoming the new norm,” the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned.
Up to 27 percent of 13-year-olds and 33 percent of 11-year-olds in some European countries are overweight or obese, according to the WHO latest report. It’s believed that lack of exercise, as well as the “disastrously effective”marketing of unhealthy foods, high in fat, sugar and salt, has led to a sharp rise in obesity and overweight in recent decades. Among the countries with the highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds is Greece (33 percent), Portugal (32 percent), and Ireland and Spain (30 percent each).
From 2002 to 2010, the number of countries where more than 20 percent of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds are overweight rose from 5 to 11.
Over 30 percent of boys and girls aged 15 and over in 23 out of 36 countries are not getting enough exercise. Among adults, women’s rates of poor physical activity span from 16 percent in Greece to 71 percent in Malta and 76 percent in Serbia.
Thanks to restrictions on advertising of unhealthy foods, promoting vegetable and fruit consumption and physical activity in schools, France, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands appeared among the few champions who managed to stem the epidemic of overweight and obesity, however.
National governments should enforce legislation, and insist on informative labeling, nutrient profiling and regulated marketing, requiring the food industry to take responsibility, the WHO recommended in its report.
In Britain, where according to official statistics most people are overweight or obese, (this includes 61.9 percent of adults and 28 percent of children aged between two and 15), on average the population consumes too much saturated fat. Intakes of the so-called non-milk extrinsic sugars exceed the recommended level for all age groups, most notably for children aged 11-18, where mean intakes provided 15.3 percent of food energy, according to the UK National Diet and Nutrition Survey.
The epidemic of overweight and obesity threatens children’s health, since childhood obesity goes hand in hand with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, orthopedic problems, mental disorders, under achievement in school, as well as lower self-esteem.
“Preventing children from becoming overweight or obese is vital to their avoiding the associated, lifelong health risks,” the United Nations health agency said.
Over 60 percent of children who are overweight before puberty will be so as young adults. Such children are three to seven times more likely to be overweight adults.
“Our perception of what is normal has shifted. Being overweight is now more common than unusual,” the WHO’s regional director, Zsuzsanna Jakab, pointed out.
We must not let another generation grow up with obesity as the new norm,” she added.
Physical inactivity “coupled with a culture that promotes cheap, convenient food high in fats, salt and sugars – is deadly,” Jakab warned. Children need at least one hour of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity every day not to gain extra weight.
“We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and the healthy food choice is the default choice, regardless of social group,” a WHO expert on nutrition, physical activity and obesity, Joao Breda, said in a statement released with the report.
“Physical activity and healthy food choices should be taken very seriously in all environments – schools, hospitals, cities, towns and workplaces. As well as the food industry, the urban planning sector can make a difference,” he added.
Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century, the WHO says. Globally, in 2010 the number of overweight children under the age of five, is estimated to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of those live in developing countries.