High rates of childhood obesity alarming given anticipated impact of COVID-19 pandemic

press release

Copenhagen, May 11, 2021

In some countries of the WHO European region, 1 in 3 children aged 6 to 9 years is overweight or obese. Mediterranean countries have the highest obesity rates, but the situation there is starting to improve.

These are some of the findings of a new report from the WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) on the fourth round of data collection (2015-2017). The report provides the latest available data on 6 to 9 year olds in 36 countries in the region. A questionnaire with data from 2021 on the consequences of the pandemic will follow from several countries.

“COVID-19 could potentially reinforce one of the most troubling trends in the WHO European region: increasing childhood obesity,” said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe.

“Being overweight or obese has been directly associated with life-threatening non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. What we need to do to brighten the future of generations to come is to implement science and data-based policies that can help reduce childhood obesity while promoting healthier nutrition and exercise, ”added Dr. Kluge.

Effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on childhood obesity

COVID-19 is likely to negatively impact the level of childhood obesity in the WHO European region, and thus the results of subsequent rounds of the COSI survey. School closures and lockdowns can affect access to school meals and exercise times for children, increasing inequality. Prevention strategies for childhood obesity must therefore remain a priority during the pandemic.

Policies that have a positive effect in the hardest hit countries

Overweight and obesity stabilized or decreased in some of the 13 European countries where it was possible to examine trends over time. Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, all of which have the highest obesity rates, and Slovenia showed a declining trend for both overweight and obesity. The decrease in the prevalence of overweight ranged from 4 to 12 percentage points for boys and from 3 to 7 percentage points for girls.

In recent years, some of these countries have implemented WHO recommended measures to help tackle obesity rates, such as taxing sweetened drinks, food marketing restrictions, and physical education.

“The COSI data shows a declining trend in childhood obesity in the countries with the highest rates of obesity. They have heard the alarm from the previous investigations and have implemented the policies we know are working. It is encouraging to see that when countries do something, it has a measurable effect, ”said Dr. Nino Berdzuli, director of the Land Health Programs Division at WHO’s regional office for Europe.

Extensive data

The most recent COSI data comes from 36 countries that participated in the survey during the 2015–2016 and 2016–2017 school years, measuring approximately 250,000 primary school-age children. The COSI report contains the most comprehensive data for boys and girls on obesity, physical activity and diet.

Main Findings

Overall, the prevalence of overweight (including obesity) was 29% in boys and 27% in girls aged 6 to 9 years; the prevalence of obesity was 13% in boys and 9% in girls. These figures mask major differences between countries.

The highest rates of overweight and obesity in children were observed in Mediterranean countries such as Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Spain, where more than 40% of boys and girls were overweight, and 19% to 24% of boys and 14% to 19 % of girls. were obese.

The lowest childhood overweight / obesity rates were observed in Central Asian countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, where 5% to 12% of boys and girls were overweight and less than 5% obese.

Diet habits

On average, almost 80% of the children ate breakfast every day, about 45% ate fruit daily and about 25% ate vegetables daily. However, country-level figures for these healthy habits varied widely: daily consumption ranged from 49% to 96% for breakfast, from 18% to 81% for fruits and from 9% to 74% for vegetables.

Frequent consumption of sweet snacks (27% of the children in total) was more common than consumption of savory snacks (14%). The percentage of children who ate this unhealthy food more than 3 days a week also varied greatly from country to country – from 5% to 62% for sweet snacks and from less than 1% to 35% for savory snacks.

Fysical activity

On average 1 in 2 children used active transport (walking or cycling) to and from school. In all countries, most children spend at least 1 hour a day playing outside (ranging from 62% to 98% in different countries).

Children with more educated parents were more likely to play sports / dance in most countries. The difference between children of high and low educated parents was more than 20 percentage points in 7 countries. On the contrary, children of less educated parents walked or cycle more often to and from school.

Lack of data for children under 5 years old

COSI provides the Region with a large dataset on the prevalence of overweight and obesity and the determinants of childhood obesity in children of primary school age. Unfortunately, there is not such a large data set for children under 5 years old. The need to strengthen surveillance initiatives for this younger age group with the support of all governments and other stakeholders is urgent.

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