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Urgent action needed to get European Region to halt the fast rise of obesity, says WHO report

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3 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
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Not a single Member State in the European Region is on track to stop the rise in obesity within the next three years, according to research published this week from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The report reveals that almost 60% of adults are overweight or obese in the European Region, as well as 7.9% of all children under the age of five and one in three school-aged children.

These figures, presented at the European Congress on Obesity, show the WHO European Region has the highest level of obesity globally after the Americas.

The UK has the fourth largest percentage of overweight adults in Europe, after Turkey, Malta and Israel. It also has the third largest number of adults living with obesity, after Turkey and Malta.   

Regarding the UK’s children, more than 30% of those between the ages of five and 9 are overweight to some degree, while around 10% are recorded as obese.

Several Mediterranean and Eastern European countries were reported as having high percentages of overweight or obese people. The WHO believes there is a link between this and education inequality in these countries, with report authors commenting: “Educational inequalities are widespread [in these countries], with higher obesity prevalence in people with lower educational attainment.”

Overweight and obesity causes more than 1.2 million deaths throughout the European Region every year, according to the WHO’s recent estimates. The disease is now the fourth most common cause of death here – after blood pressure problems, dietary risks, and tobacco – and can be linked to more than 13% of all deaths.

“For some countries within the Region, it is predicted that obesity will overtake smoking as the main risk factor for preventable cancer in the coming decades”, the report says.

Carrying a dangerous amount of excess body weight can also increase the risk of developing 13 types of cancer. The report estimates obesity currently causes around 200,000 new cancer cases every year – a figure expected to rise in the future if no significant action is taken.

It is also a leading risk factor for disability, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and puts people at a greater risk of suffering badly or dying from the Covid-19 virus.

According to the WHO, the leading factors which have influenced the rise in obesity in the European Region include the pandemic, which encouraged the adoption of an inactive lifestyle, and a higher consumption of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), especially in children.

The rise in online gaming and digital food delivery platforms have also been blamed for the increase.

The WHO has made several recommendations to curb the spike. These include restricting food and drink marketing targeted at children, implementing taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks and bringing in subsidies for healthier food.

Additionally, the organisation recommends developing better overweight and obesity management services in primary health care, finding ways to improve people’s diet and physical activity throughout all periods of life, and creating environments where healthy foods and exercise can be more affordable and accessible to all.

“Obesity knows no borders. In the Europe and Central Asia, no single country is going to meet the WHO Global NCD target of halting the rise of obesity,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“The countries in our Region are incredibly diverse, but every one is challenged to some degree. By creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment and innovation in health, and developing strong and resilient health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the Region.”

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