The predictions were based on a study conducted by the UK Health Forum for the WHO’s regional office in Europe
The study used data from across Europe and compared 2010 obesity levels with predicted levels in 2030, using body mass index as a marker.
It suggested that a third of UK women would be obese by 2030 compared with 26% in 2010, rising to 70% of overweight men. Even for countries where obesity levels are lower, the report predicted a sharp rise – with Swedish obesity rates predicted to nearly double from 14% in 2010 to an estimated 26% in 2030.
However, Dr Joao Breda, WHO programme manager for nutrition, obesity and physical activity, in a clarification issued yesterday, said: “The study should be used with some caution as it was relatively small and was based on nationally available data that may not reflect the latest WHO estimates which are under further development.”
This cautionary statement followed wide reporting of the study in the international press. But Laura Webber, who works at the UK Health Forum and is co-author of the study, told FoodNavigator that, overall, the data was still valid.
“Some of the data for some countries are poor, resulting in large confidence limits. [But] the data are comprehensive – i.e. we used the best available data – it’s just that some countries do not have national surveys or many years of data.”
Not just hype
Tam Fry, spokesperson for the National Obesity Forum, said that the WHO was trying to ‘cover its back’ and that the original predictions should be taken seriously.
“There is absolutely no point for the WHO to indulge in ‘hype’. As far as UK is concerned [the figures] should be believed (…). They are equal to/even exceed independent UK predictions,” he said.
“In the UK the message has to be that if obesity is allowed to progress much further, the cost of treating it and its co-morbidities may collapse the NHS. If that doesn't make people sit up and take notice, nothing will.”
While the initial report had painted a bleak picture, suggesting that there was no quick-fix ‘silver bullet’, the WHO clarification focussed on the success of some preventative measures.
Breda said: “Action taken today can prevent these predictions from becoming reality and in some European countries the trend is already flattening off thanks to preventive measures including successes, for example, in the area of childhood obesity.”
The study has not yet been published but was presented at the European Congress on Obesity in Prague yesterday.
Dr Breda co-authored a second study – also presented at the Congress – which found that out of 28 countries which supplied data, Ireland came out top for childhood obesity amongst under-fives. Britain was second with 23.1%.