One in three adolescents is obese, say WHO

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Health promotion campaigns are failing to reduce obesity in adolescents, according to a report published by World Health Organization (WHO) today.

Childhood obesity is now considered one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century.

The report, which shows data from 27 countries and regions across Europe between 2002 and 2014, was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Portugal.

Younger adolescents, boys and those living with families in a lower socioeconomic position are most likely to be obese and thus carry an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep difficulties, musculoskeletal problems and cardiovascular disease in the future.

World-wide problem

The WHO report states that most overweight or obese adolescents are living in developing countries in Europe and are consuming a lot of fast food, sugary drinks and are sitting down for less family meals.

“Despite sustained efforts to tackle childhood obesity, one in three adolescents is still estimated to be overweight or obese in Europe, with the highest rates found in southern European and Mediterranean countries,” said Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO regional director for Europe.

“What is of particular concern is that the epidemic is on the rise in eastern European countries, where historically rates have been lower. Ambitious policy action is required to reach the Sustainable Development Goal to halt the increase in childhood obesity. Governments must target efforts and break this harmful cycle from childhood into adolescence and beyond”.

Only 13 year old boys in Norway and 11 year old girls in Spain showed a significant decrease in obesity prevalence.

Levels of obesity were much higher in lower affluence adolescents in 16 countries and regions.

It is a concern that the issue will lead in to a cycle of poverty and poor health, as obesity in adolescent years is shown to relate to less educational attainment and lower incomes in adulthood.

Furthermore, four in five obese adolescents will experience weight problems in later life.

“Most young people will not outgrow obesity: about four in every five adolescents who become obese will continue to have weight problems as adults. As such, they carry forward the increased risk of ill health, stigma and discrimination. Furthermore, the chronic nature of obesity can limit social mobility and help sustain a damaging intergenerational cycle of poverty and ill health,” said Dr Joao Breda, programme manager for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

Sugary drinks are one of the main contributors to adolescent obesity and data collected from the UK showed that 15% of adolescents’ calorie intake is coming from free-sugars, found in sugar sweetened drinks.

WHO says sugar should be reduced to only 25g per day, roughly six teaspoons, yet the average can of soft drink contains 40g, ten teaspoons.

On top of this, only a minority are eating the recommended five servings a day of fruit and vegetables.

No more physical activity

Although recommendations state that an average of 60 minutes moderate intensity activity should be taken every day, the report says that a majority of adolescents spend 60% of their waking time sitting down.

Only 25% of boys and 15% of girls across all regions managed to achieve the 60 minute recommendation.

This is worsened by screen-based activities, as they have a strong correlation with snacking.

Despite TV-viewing decreasing across Europe, computer use for gaming and non-gaming purposes increased sharply over the time monitored for the report.

WHO recommend that time spent at a computer should be limited to less than two hours per day, however this is only met by a small minority of adolescents.

What next?

The report states that health promotion and disease prevention campaigns are currently failing to reduce the level of obesity prevalence in Europe.

WHO say policies and interventions need to be made with up-to-date data to better tackle the problem.

“Policies to support improvements in diet and sustainable interventions within the context of schools, families, communities and food environments are needed for all young people,” the report states.

“Educating today’s young people has the potential to also improve outcomes for future generations”.

Broader, integrated, comprehensive policy measures at both national and international levels are needed, as well as ensuring healthy options are available and affordable.

“Priority policy actions include fiscal measures, such as introducing a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, school fund policies that define standards for foods available to children and adolescents, marketing restrictions and clear targets for the food industry to improve the nutritional quality of food products,” WHO says are the next actions Europe should be making.

Campaigns aiming to make physical activity a part of everyday life for European adolescents should also be of top priority.

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