While a new study has shown that childhood obesity in the U.S. has dropped for children in the age group of two to five, it is slowly becoming a new norm in European countries. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns Europeans for a deadly epidemic of physical inactivity and poor diets, high in fat and sugar.
Officials of the EU summit in Greece said that up to 33 percent of Europe’s 11-year olds and 27 percent of 13-year olds are currently overweight or obese, with Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain having the highest rates in overweight and obese teenagers. Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director for WHO Europe, says, “The European perception of what is normal has shifted and childhood obesity and overweight is becoming more common than unusual. We cannot let the new generation grow up with obesity as a new norm. Physical inactivity and this culture that promotes cheap, convenient foods are deadly.” According to the WHO, inactivity is fourth on the list of causes of death in the world and it is a major threat for developed countries.
Some European countries were praised for their efforts to fight the epidemic of childhood obesity and being overweight. France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Norway have shown to be countries where physical activity, combined with healthy foods are heavily promoted. In addition, these countries have succeeded in remaining focused on environments that encourage physical activity to both children and adults. WHO’s Program Manager for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, Joao Breda, says Europe needs more countries like those. “The food industry and the government could help, but the urban planning sector could especially play a big part in this by providing green space and attractive walking routes. We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and healthy foods are a default choice,” she says.
The WHO says the epidemic of childhood obesity and overweight affects children’s health as obesity may cause cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and orthopedic problems. In addition, children who suffer from obesity or being overweight are also prone to mental problems, under achievement in school and a lower self-esteem. Studies show that over 60 percent of children, who are obese or overweight before puberty, will also be so as young adults and later in their lives. Jakab says that children need one hour of physical activity per day to keep healthy. For adults, physical activity is required for at least 150 minutes per week. Physical activity does not necessarily mean that a child or adult must participate in sports. The WHO encourages all types of physical activity, including going for a walk outside.
According to the WHO, childhood obesity is the most problematic public health challenge in the world. In 2010, there were an estimated 42 million children under the age of five, who suffered from obesity or being overweight worldwide. Close to 35 million of those children live in developed countries.
In the U.S., first lady Michelle Obama started an initiative four years ago, called “Let’s Move.” Her program is partly focused on parental education and partly on government reform. The new study, showing that childhood obesity has dropped in the U.S., proves that Obama and the U.S. are on track, unlike Europe, where childhood obesity is slowly becoming the new norm.
By Diana Herst