Stunning World Obesity Day statistics note tenfold increase in child obesity since 1975

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11 Oct 2017 --- Today marks World Obesity Day, and a new study published in The Lancet has put into perspective the present and future extent of the global health problem. The study notes that there has been a tenfold increase in the number of children and adolescents with obesity worldwide since 1975, and the world will have more obese children and adolescents (aged 5 to 19 years) than underweight by 2022, if current trends continue.

World Obesity Day is an initiative of the World Obesity Federation, which represents professional members of the scientific, medical and research communities from over 50 regional and national obesity associations. The event’s website warns that on current trends, 2.7 billion adults worldwide will suffer from overweight and obesity by 2025.

Untreated, obesity is responsible for a significant proportion of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including heart disease, diabetes, liver disease and many types of cancer, the website warns. It adds that if urgent action to treat or prevent obesity isn’t taken, the annual global medical bill for treating its consequences is expected to reach US$1.2 trillion per year by 2025.

Food marketing, pricing and policies behind obesity rise
The new study published in The Lancet analyzed weight and height measurements from nearly 130 million people aged over 5 – it used data from 31.5 million people aged 5 to 19, and 97.4 million aged 20 and older, the largest number of participants ever involved in an epidemiological study. More than 1,000 researchers contributed to the study, which looked at body mass index (BMI) and how obesity has changed worldwide from 1975 to 2016.

During this period, obesity rates in the world's children and adolescents increased from less than 1 percent (equivalent to 5 million girls and 6 million boys) in 1975 to nearly 6 percent in girls (50 million) and nearly 8 percent in boys (74 million) in 2016. Combined, the number of obese 5- to 19-year-olds rose more than tenfold globally, from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016. An additional 213 million were overweight in 2016 but fell below the threshold for obesity.

“Over the past four decades, obesity rates in children and adolescents have soared globally, and continue to do so in low- and middle-income countries. More recently, they have plateaued in higher income countries, although obesity levels remain unacceptably high,” says lead author Professor Majid Ezzati, of Imperial's School of Public Health.

Professor Ezzati adds that the worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy, nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities.

“The trend predicts a generation of children and adolescents growing up obese and also malnourished. We need ways to make healthy, nutritious food more available at home and school, especially in poor families and communities, and regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods,” Professor Ezzatti concludes.

More obese than underweight 5 to 19 year olds by 2022
The authors say that if post-2000 trends continue, global levels of child and adolescent obesity will surpass those for moderately and severely underweight for the same age group by 2022.

Nevertheless, the large number of moderately or severely underweight children and adolescents in 2016 (75 million girls and 117 boys) still represents a major public health challenge, especially in the poorest parts of the world. This reflects the threat posed by malnutrition in all its forms, with there being underweight and overweight young people living in the same communities.

Children and adolescents have rapidly transitioned from mostly underweight to mostly overweight in many middle-income countries, including in East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. The authors say this could reflect an increase in the consumption of energy-dense foods, especially highly processed carbohydrates, which lead to weight gain and poor lifelong health outcomes.

Dr. Fiona Bull, program coordinator for surveillance- and population-based prevention of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at the World Health Organization (WHO), says: “These data highlight, remind and reinforce that overweight and obesity is a global health crisis today, and threatens to worsen in coming years unless we start taking drastic action.”

Plan’s solutions include avoiding calorie-dense foods
In conjunction with the release of the new obesity estimates, WHO is publishing a summary of the Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) Implementation Plan. The plan gives countries clear guidance on effective actions to curb childhood and adolescent obesity. WHO has also released guidelines calling on frontline healthcare workers to actively identify and manage children who are overweight or obese.

Dr. Bull adds: “WHO encourages countries to implement efforts to address the environments that today are increasing our children's chance of obesity. Countries should aim particularly to reduce consumption of cheap, ultra-processed, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods. They should also reduce the time children spend on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities by promoting greater participation in physical activity through active recreation and sports.”

Industry also helps with weight management
Despite criticisms of the nutritional values of some food and beverage products, the industry has also shown in recent years that it can help to aid weight management. Global new product launch activity tracked by Innova Market Insights with a weight management positioning increased by 21 percent in 2016 from 2015.

Examples include Jubi Rosehip Flavored Birch Water from the UK, which acts as a natural cleanser and as a dietary supplement. An example from the food side is Rohi Cereales Premium Life Flakes Mix De Cereales: Mix Of Cereals With Nuts And Almonds from Colombia, which is a mix of wholegrain flakes, chocolate quinoa, wholegrain sticks with nuts and almonds. Because of its high fiber content and its greater protein supply in relation to cereals, quinoa has a low glycemic index, making it ideal for people who want to lose weight by eating healthy.

By Paul Creasy

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