Obesity in Young Children Now a ‘Global Challenge,’ WHO Says

Obesity in Young Children Now a ‘Global Challenge,’ WHO Says

The Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO), a part of the World Health Organization (WHO), recently presented its final report to the group’s director general, summarizing two years of work into ways to deal with the increasing levels of obesity found in young children worldwide.

An estimated 41 million children under 5 years of age are now overweight or obese. Low- and middle-income countries report the largest increase in childhood obesity, and the Jan. 25 report includes a number of recommendations for governments on how to reverse this trend.

Commission co-chair Peter Gluckman said that obesity needs to be handled on a political level. “Increased political commitment is needed to tackle the global challenge of childhood overweight and obesity. WHO needs to work with governments to implement a wide range of measures that address the environmental causes of obesity and overweight, and help give children the healthy start to life they deserve,” he said, in a press release by WHO.

Children are growing up in a world driven by globalization and urbanization, the report said, with increasing exposure to habits and lifestyles that encourage weight gain across all socioeconomic groups in countries, regardless of income or development level.

The report highlighted that the marketing of unhealthy foods and sugary beverages is contributing greatly to the rise in childhood obesity, particularly in developing countries. Between 1990 and 2014, excessive weight in this age group increased from 4.8 percent to 6.1 percent — corresponding to 10 million more children being overweight in 2014 compared to 1990.

In 2014, 48 percent of all overweight children lived in Asia, and a further 25 percent in Africa. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of overweight children under 5 in Africa virtually doubled, increasing from 5.4 million to 10.3 million.

“Overweight and obesity impact on a child’s quality of life, as they face a wide range of barriers, including physical, psychological and health consequences. We know that obesity can impact on educational attainment too and this, combined with the likelihood that they will remain obese into adulthood, poses major health and economic consequences for them, their families and society as a whole,” said Dr. Sania Nishtar, commission co-chair.

While the report presents somber statistics, it also offers advice to governments wishing to fight childhood obesity. The recommendations include ways of promoting healthy foods and physical activity, improving preconception and pregnancy care, setting early childhood diet guidelines, offering family-based weight management counseling, establishing programs promoting healthy school environments, and increasing health and nutrition education.

The WHO report also recommends that nongovernmental organizations do more to raise the profile of childhood obesity and to advocate for improvements in children’s environment, and that corporations and others in the private sector focus on producing healthier foods and beverages and ensuring access to them.

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