WHO Report Warns of Rising Childhood Obesity Worldwide


The availability of fatty, sugary foods and drinks in lower- and middle-income countries may be the cause for 41 million children five and younger becoming overweight and obese. That number may grow to over 70 million young people across the globe during the coming decade, according to a new U.N. World Health Organization (WHO) report, WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO).

The number of young children who are overweight or obese has risen to 6.1% from 4.8% between 1990 and 2014, the report shows. The number of overweight and obese children under five in low- and middle-class countries has doubled from 7.5 million to 15.5 million children. Roughly three-quarters of these children lived in Asia (48%) in 2014, and Africa (25%), says Melissa Healy of the Los Angeles Times.

The WHO report, which took two years to prepare, suggested government intervention to improve children’s diets and to increase physical activity. Other recommendations included the promotion of breastfeeding, publishing guidelines for healthful eating, and implementing an “effective tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”

The report added that low-income families have a higher rate of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, are at greater risk of obesity, and must pay attention to price changes. Some countries, says the report, might consider levying taxes on foods with high amounts of sugar and fat.

Another plan outlined in the paper was to limit children’s exposure to advertisements and commercials marketing unhealthy food and sugar-laden beverages. In countries such as China, India, and Brazil, sales of soft drinks have more than quadrupled over the last decade.

Soft drink sales in 2012, mostly from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, were estimated to be at $532 billion. Packaged and processed food have also become popular in middle-income nations.

TakePart’s Jason Best says this distressing report follows years of what was considered a uniquely American childhood obesity crisis. Unlike many other diseases such as cancer or communicable diseases, obesity has traditionally been seen as a result of a lack of self-control or the inevitable product of making bad lifestyle choices. Commission Chairman Peter Gluckman called obesity in children “an exploding nightmare in the developing world.”

The big message, according to Gluckman, is that the blame is not to be placed on kids. The report is clear that a growing number of children are born into “obesogenic environments” – a setting that is conducive to promoting obesity. There is scientific evidence that overweight or obese kids are products of certain risk factors like poor maternal nutrition.

The authors of the report point out that if a mother enters her pregnancy weighing too much or having diabetes, the child is predisposed to larger fat deposits that are linked to metabolic disease and obesity.

The researchers called for leaders in education to institute courses that promote health, physical activity, and nutrition. Included in the list of healthy living practices that parents should be taught were establishing appropriate sleep habits, decreasing screen time, and promoting active play for kids between the ages of two and five, reports Haroon Siddique of The Guardian.

Reuters writes that children of migrants and those from families of indigenous people are at a higher risk of becoming obese due to the accelerated changes in culture and the limited availability of healthcare.

ECHO co-chair Sania Nishtar said in a statement:

“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.”