A Global Perspective of Childhood Obesity

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The World Health Organization has called childhood obesity “one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century”—and it’s not going away anytime soon. Between 1990 and 2012, the number of overweight or obese babies and young children (up to age five) increased throughout the world from 31 million to 44 million—a 42 percent increase over just two decades. If current trends continue, by the year 2025, that number is expected to rise to 70 million children who haven’t yet celebrated their 5th birthdays.

The Scope of the Problem

It’s not just an issue in the wealthier countries around the world. Childhood obesity is also prevalent in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban areas. In fact, the rate of increase in developing countries has been more than 30 percent higher than in developed countries.

Among adults, the overall rate of obesity has increased higher than it has for children in many countries, except in Australia, according to researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But the rate at which children are becoming overweight has accelerated—faster than it has for adults—in Brazil, China, the U.K., the U.S., and Australia, which means the obesity gap between adults and children is narrowing in these countries.

For example, in the past 30 years, childhood obesity rates in the U.S. have tripled, and today one out of three children is considered overweight and one out of six children is obese. In Europe, Spain has the highest obesity rate among pre-schoolers, and Romania has the lowest. Overall, 24 percent of school-age children, ages 6 to 9, in Europe are considered overweight, and Cyprus, Greece, Spain, and England have some of the highest obesity rates among kids ages 10 to 18, according to a report from the Harvard School of Public Health.

Even in Africa, where hunger, underweight, and malnutrition have been primary concerns among children, the childhood obesity rate is increasing. Meanwhile, in many Asian countries (except Japan), there was a 53 percent increase in the rate of overweight and obesity among pre-schoolers between 1990 and 2010.

The Source of the Problem

The common denominator behind this global trend: The rising levels of childhood obesity stem in part from a shift towards an increased intake of calorie-dense foods “that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other healthy micronutrients, and a trend towards decreased levels of physical activity,” according to the World Health Organization. In many parts of the world, the aggressive marketing of high-calorie foods and beverages to kids is contributing to the problem, and the increasingly digitalized nature of our lifestyles makes it less likely that kids will engage in enough physical activities and healthy forms of active play.  

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy solution to these influences. Different countries are taking steps to address the problem of childhood obesity in a culturally sensitive way. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization has formed a high-level Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity with the goal of collecting advice from experts around the world and making recommendations for how to tackle the current crisis. Since it’s a multifaceted problem, the solution needs to be multifaceted, too, which is why many different health specialists, scientists, economists, and other experts are needed to weigh in with ideas for a global remedy.

Too much is at stake if experts don’t come up with viable approaches to reversing this trend. After all, childhood obesity brings a variety of unwanted physical consequences and psychological ripple effects, too. Plus, obese children are likely to continue to be obese as adults, setting them up for a host of health problems and a compromised quality of life, as they get older. That would be an unfortunate legacy for the next generation, anywhere in the world.

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