The WHO Regional Office for Europe report found that up to a third of European 11-year-olds are now overweight, with the highest prevalence in Greece (33%), Portugal (32%), Ireland (30%) and Spain (30%).
It recommends legislation to help curb consumption of unhealthy foods and provide informative labelling, as well as nutrient profiling and regulated marketing of food products, “requiring the food industry to take responsibility”.
“Our perception of what is normal has shifted,” said WHO regional director for Europe Zsuzsanna Jakab. “Being overweight is now more common than unusual. We must not let another generation grow up with obesity as the new norm. Physical inactivity – coupled with a culture that promotes cheap, convenient foods high in fats, salt and sugars – is deadly.”
However, some countries have managed to contain rates of overweight and obesity. The lowest prevalence of overweight among Europe 11-year-olds was in the Netherlands and Switzerland, at 13% and 11% respectively.
According to the report, France and some Scandinavian countries have kept obesity rates stable. The WHO says these countries have promoted fruit and vegetables in schools, taxed unhealthy foods to reduce intake, controlled advertising and promoted physical activity, particularly among children. All of these actions are in line with the WHO’s Health 2020 public policy framework.
In addition, the WHO claims that physical inactivity is a part of the problem, with more than 30% of children aged 15 and over getting too little exercise in 23 out of 36 European countries.
“We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and the healthy food choice is the default choice, regardless of social group,” said programme manager, nutrition, physical activity and obesity at the Regional Office, Joao Breda. “Physical activity and healthy food choices should be taken very seriously in all environments – schools, hospitals, cities, towns and workplaces. As well as the food industry, the urban planning sector can make a difference.”