Global Health

The number of obese children is about to overtake the number of underweight for the first time

Eight-month-old Santiago Mendoza is held on to by his mother Eunice Fandino as they wait at a clinic for the obese in Bogota March 19 ,2014. Mendoza, who weighs 20 kg, will be put on a diet, therapist Salvador Palacios said. REUTERS/John Vizcaino (COLOMBIA - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH)

Nearly 8 percent of boys and nearly 6 percent of girls worldwide were obese in 2016. Image: REUTERS/John Vizcaino (COLOMBIA - Tags: SOCIETY HEALTH)

Stephanie Nebehay
Writer, Reuters
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Global Health

The number of obese children and adolescents worldwide has jumped tenfold in the past 40 years and the rise is accelerating in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Asia, a major study said on Wednesday.

Childhood and teen obesity rates have levelled off in the United States, north-western Europe and other rich countries, but remain "unacceptably high" there, researchers at Imperial College London and the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

"Over 40 years we have gone from about 11 million to a more than tenfold increase to over 120 million obese children and adolescents throughout the world," lead author Majid Ezzati of Imperial's School of Public Health, told a news conference.

This means that nearly 8 percent of boys and nearly 6 percent of girls worldwide were obese in 2016, against less than one percent for both sexes in 1975.

An additional 213 million children aged 5-19 were overweight last year, but fell below the threshold for obesity, according to the largest ever study, based on height and weight measurements of 129 million people.

The researchers called for better nutrition at home and at school, and more physical exercise to prevent a generation from becoming adults at greater risk of diabetes, heart disease and cancers due to excessive weight.

Clear food labels on salt, sugar and fat content are needed to help consumers make "healthy choices", the study said.

Taxation and tough restrictions on marketing of junk food should be considered, it said. WHO has already recommended a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks to reduce consumption.

Rapid transition

South Africa, Egypt and Mexico which had "very low levels of obesity four decades ago" now have among the high rates of obesity in girls, between 20-25 percent, Ezzati said.

"The experience of east Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean show that the transition from underweight to overweight and obesity can be rapid," the study said.

If current trends continue, in 2022 there will be more obese children and teenagers worldwide than underweight ones, who now number 192 million, half of them in India, the study said.

Polynesia and Micronesia had the highest rates of child obesity last year, 25.4 percent in girls and 22.4 percent in boys, followed by "the high-income English-speaking region" that includes the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain.

Among high-income countries, the United States had "the highest obesity rates for girls and boys", 19.5 percent and 23.3 percent, respectively.

"Children are not getting physical activity in the school days, there is poor food opportunities in many schools, walking and cycling to school is going down in many countries, unsafe in many other countries, and parents are not being given the right, sufficient advice on nutrition," said Fiona Bull of WHO's department of non-communicable diseases.

"It's the changing environments, food, behaviours, portions, consumption patterns have completely changed over the last 40 years. Highly processed food is more available, more marketed and it's cheaper," she said. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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