The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has jumped tenfold in the past 40 years and the rise is accelerating in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Asia, a major study said last week, reigniting concern about the issue. Childhood and teen obesity rates have levelled off in the US, north-western Europe and other rich countries, but remain “unacceptably high” there, researchers at Imperial College London and the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
“Over 40 years we have gone from about 11mn to a more than tenfold increase to over 120mn obese children and adolescents throughout the world,” according to lead author Majid Ezzati of Imperial’s School of Public Health. This means that nearly 8% of boys and nearly 6% of girls worldwide were obese in 2016, against less than 1% for both sexes in 1975.
An additional 213mn children aged 5-19 were overweight last year, but fell below the threshold for obesity, according to the largest ever study, based on height and weight measurements of 129mn people. Ironically, globally, more children are still underweight rather than obese although the researchers think that will change by 2022 if trends continue. They called for better nutrition at home and at school, and more physical exercise to prevent a generation from becoming adults at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancers due to excessive weight. Clear food labels on salt, sugar and fat content are needed to help consumers make “healthy choices”, the study said.
South Africa, Egypt and Mexico which had “very low levels of obesity four decades ago” now have among the high rates of obesity in girls, between 20-25%, according to Ezzati. “The experience of east Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean show that the transition from underweight to overweight and obesity can be rapid,” the study said. If current trends continue, in 2022 there will be more obese children and teenagers worldwide than underweight ones, who now number 192mn, half of them in India, the study said. Polynesia and Micronesia had the highest rates of child obesity last year, 25.4% in girls and 22.4% in boys, followed by “the high-income English-speaking region” that includes the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain. Among high-income countries, the US had “the highest obesity rates for girls and boys”, 19.5% and 23.3%, respectively.
“Children are not getting physical activity in the school days, there is poor food opportunities in many schools, walking and cycling to school is going down in many countries, unsafe in many other countries, and parents are not being given the right, sufficient advice on nutrition,” said Fiona Bull of WHO’s department of non-communicable diseases. “It’s the changing environments, food, behaviours, portions, consumption patterns have completely changed over the last 40 years. Highly processed food is more available, more marketed and it’s cheaper,” she said.
A separate study, also released to mark World Obesity Day on Wednesday, shows that getting those figures down is not just an issue of public health, but also public finance. The research by the World Obesity Federation (WOF) found that treating the effects of obesity will cost the world’s collective healthcare systems $1.2tn per year by 2025, and the increase in healthcare costs to the US is on track to outpace all other nations. Taxation and tough restrictions on marketing of junk food should be considered, it said. WHO has already recommended a 20% tax on sugary drinks to reduce consumption.
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