A study shows there has been a tenfold increase in the number of obese and overweight children and adolescents worldwide in just 40 years.
In one of the biggest epidemiological studies ever undertaken, scientists with the World Health Organization and Imperial College London analyzed height and weight data for 130 million people since 1975, to get their Body Mass Index or BMI.
The most dramatic changes have occurred in middle income countries in regions such as East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and Latin America. Lead author, Professor Majid Ezzati of Imperial College London is surprised by the speed of change.
“Places that a few decades ago, there may have been very little obesity and a fair amount of underweight children, suddenly are bordering on having epidemics.”
In higher income countries, rates of childhood obesity have plateaued but remain very high. In that income group, the United States had the highest obesity rates.
Poor policymaking blamed
Researchers say the global obesity epidemic is a result of food marketing and poor policymaking across the globe.
“Rather than being an individual’s choice, it’s the hard environments that people choose their foods in healthy foods being priced out of reach, and especially out of reach of the poor, and unhealthy foods being marketed aggressively, together with perhaps not having a safe play area for children, that are leading to weight gain,” says Ezzati.
Obesity is an underlying cause of many diseases later in life, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. But Ezzati says it also has a big impact in childhood.
“It’s associated with a stigma, so psycho-social consequences for the children. There is some evidence that it actually affects the educational outcome for the children.”
Major health challenge
The study also looked at the number of underweight children, which still represents a major health challenge in the poorest parts of the world. India had the highest prevalence of moderately and severely underweight young people across the four decades.
“We really need to deal with the two issues at the same time. So we can’t wait to deal with underweight, and then worry about overweight and obesity. The transition happens really fast and they are all different forms of malnutrition,” says Ezzati.
Authors of the report are calling for policymakers to find ways to make healthy, nutritious food more available at home and school, especially in poorer families and communities, alongside higher taxes on unhealthy foods.