The population of obese children and adolescents worldwide has risen tenfold in the past four decades, which has become a global health crisis that threatens to worsen unless drastic actions are taken, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Wednesday.
On the occasion of World Obesity Day, the WHO and Imperial College London released their latest study on childhood and adolescent obesity worldwide, which was published in the medical journal The Lancet.
It analyzed weight and height measurements from nearly 130 million people aged over five years, including 31.5 million aged five to 19 and 97.4 million aged 20 and older, making it the largest ever number of participants involved in an epidemiological study. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 contributors participated in the study which looked at body mass index and how obesity has changed worldwide from 1975 to 2016.
The figures show that the obesity rates in the world's children and adolescents increased from less than one percent, or some five million girls and six million boys, in 1975 to nearly six percent in girls (50 million) and nearly eight percent in boys (74 million) in 2016. Combined, the number of obese five- to 19-year-olds rose more than tenfold globally, from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016, while an additional 213 million were overweight in 2016 but fell below the threshold for obesity.
"These worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe," said Professor Majid Ezzati from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, who was the study's lead author.
Healthy nutritious foods are becoming too expensive for poor families and communities, he continued, urging for more availability at home and school of these kind of foods, especially in poor families and communities.
Ezzati also advised that regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods roll out, or a future generation of children and adolescents growing up obese will be at greater risk of diseases, like diabetes.
The study predicts that if the trends continue, by 2020 the global level of child and adolescent obesity will surpass those for moderately and severely underweight youth from the same age group.
"These data highlight, remind and reinforce that overweight and obesity is a global health crisis today, and threatens to worsen in coming years unless we start taking drastic action," said Dr. Fiona Bull, program coordinator for surveillance and population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at the WHO.
As part of the solutions, the WHO released a summary of the Ending Childhood Obesity Implementation Plan, offering countries clear guidance to curb childhood and adolescent obesity. Topping the WHO guidance are promoting intake of healthy foods and physical activity, followed by preconception and pregnancy care, early childhood diet and physical activity, health and nutrition for school-age children, and weight management.
Particularly, countries should aim to "reduce consumption of cheap, ultra-processed, calorie dense, nutrient poor foods," as well as "the time children spend on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities by promoting greater participation in physical activity through active recreation and sports," said Dr. Bull.
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