Obesity is not only an epidemic in the United States. It is now a problem in Western Europe, and other areas are also getting a lot of attention. Obesity is a growing problem in some parts of Europe and elsewhere in the world now, according to a new World Health Organization (WHO) study.
The United States first started seeing an increased obesity problem in the 1980s and 1990s. But the WHO study, published in The International Journal of Obesity, indicates that other countries are beginning to see similar patterns as diets and lifestyles have changed. The WHO reports that worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980.
Body mass index (BMI), a key measure of testing body fat, has increased throughout Western Europe in the past 10 years. Specifics vary by country, but the changes are largely due to increased calorie consumption, particularly fats, sweeteners and salt, and reduced levels of exercise.
The WHO “Monica project” examined trends in BMI measurements and percentages of calories consumed from sweeteners and fats. Among the countries in WHO’s European region, approximately 27 percent of 13-year-olds and 33 percent of 11-year-olds are overweight. The public health researchers from Finland, United States, Spain and Belgium found that European countries with the most overweight 11-year-olds were Greece, with 33 percent; Portugal, 32 percent; and Spain, Wales and Ireland, each with 30 percent. The Netherlands and Switzerland had the lowest rates of obesity.
While diet is a concern, the WHO is blaming inactivity more than cheap convenience foods for making obesity a problem in Europe now. The WHO lists inactivity as the fourth leading cause of death globally, and one of the major health threats in developed countries. The WHO recommends children ages five to 17 get at least 60 minutes daily of moderate to vigorous physical activity. In 36 European countries, studies show that 30 percent of adolescents ages 15 and over do not get enough exercise. The WHO recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes weekly of moderate exercise, but adults fall short of meeting this exercise requirements.
Zsuzsanna Jakab, the regional director for WHO in Europe, notes that the perception of what is normal has shifted and being overweight is now more common. She is worried about letting another generation grow up with obesity as a norm.
On the positive front, in Central and Eastern Europe, the trend shows decreasing BMIs. But the periods for decline corresponded with the economic and political changes that resulted in shortages.
The WHO report also commended some countries, such as Scandinavia and France, for working to contain the obesity problem. These countries tax certain foods to cut overconsumption, control advertising, encourage kids to eat more fruit and vegetables, and promote physical activity.
Joao Breda, WHO expert on nutrition, obesity and physical activity, says that people’s living environments impact their exercise and diet. He suggests creating town, school and workplace environments where physical activity is encouraged and healthy food is the default choice.
Whether countries take a governmental action approach (like France) or an architectural design one, it is clear that Americans are not the only one with an obesity problem. The WHO study shows a need to address the burgeoning obesity problem in Europe now before it escalates.
By Dyanne Weiss