The number of obese children and adolescents aged between five- and 19-years old has seen a tenfold increase over since 1975, a new study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and Imperial College London revealed.
The epidemiological research, which analysed the measurements of nearly 130m people, concluded that obesity rates for children and adolescents increased from less than 1% of the population in 1975 to 6% of girls and 8% of boys in 2016.
Combined, the number of obese five to 19-year-olds globally rose from 11m in 1975 to 124m in 2016. An additional 213m were overweight in 2016 but fell below the threshold for obesity.
Food marketing, pricing and politics
Lead author of the study, Imperial’s Majid Ezzati, said that the food industry’s marketing messages played a role in fuelling rising rates of global obesity. Ezzati also stressed that poverty was an important factor propelling soaring obesity rates.
"These 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 at greater risk of diseases, like diabetes. 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."
Ezzati said that obesity rates have “plateaued” in high-income countries, where obesity levels are nevertheless “unacceptably high”. However, he stressed, obesity rates continue to “soar” in low-income countries.
2022: More obese than underweight
The authors predicted that if post-2000 trends continue, global levels of child and adolescent obesity will surpass those for moderately and severely underweight youth by 2022. In 2016, the global number of moderately or severely underweight girls and boys was 75m and 117m respectively.
This large number of underweight children reflects the threat posed by malnutrition “in all its forms” – with underweight and overweight children 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, WHO programme coordinator for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases, commented: “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.”
WHO call to action
WHO also published its plan that provides “clear guidelines” on “effective actions” to tackle childhood obesity, Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) Implementation Plan.
WHO called on governments to “take leadership” on the issue and demonstrate political commitment to cutting obesity rates. This should include “a budget and legislation or regulatory instrument to implement key interventions to reduce childhood obesity", the health body argued.
Other actions should include the implementation of “comprehensive” programmes to promote healthy food and cut consumption of unhealthy options. These should encompass a sugar tax on fizzy drinks, regulations governing the marketing of foods and drinks to children, increasing the availability of healthy food in poor communities and the development of a “standardised” global nutritional labelling system, WHO said.