Uppsala Health Summit

The time is now to take action to end childhood obesity


Hannah Brinsden, Head of Advocacy & Public Affairs at the World Obesity Federation, discusses childhood obesity ahead of World Obesity Day on the 11th October and the Uppsala Health Summit taking place 11-12th October.

World Obesity Day 2016 is focusing on childhood obesity. The underlying message is simple:  Governments need to urgently take leadership and comprehensive action to end childhood obesity.

Childhood overweight and obesity continues to rise

In the last decade, childhood overweight and obesity has risen significantly around the world. Figures from 2013 show that approximately 222 million school-aged children globally are overweight or obese and our latest estimates suggest that this number is set to rise by about 20% by 2025. Not only does it put our children’s future health at risk but it impairs their immediate health, raising their risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. As well as hindering the potential of future generations to live healthy lives, this has a considerable economic impact on health services and societies. Put simply, the rise in obesity that we are seeing is unaffordable and unsustainable.

We know what needs to be done

A number of key risk factors can help explain this rapid and unsustainable rise in childhood obesity. For instance, ultra-processed foods which are often high in fat, sugar and salt remain one of the most highly advertised products on TV, made worse by the era-of social media. The consumption of soft drinks, which have no nutritional value, have risen by 30% in the last decade. Increasing numbers of families live in urban environments with limited opportunities or to space for activity and exercise. Obesity amongst women of maternal age also has a negative impact on the health of their future child, further adding to the complexity of the problems we face.

Addressing these factors will not only be vital for preventing childhood obesity, but will also be beneficial to those who are already overweight and/or trying to maintain weight loss. With 222 million children with excess weight we can’t look to prevention alone and we need to look to support the millions of children who are already obese. In addition to prioritising the prevention obesity, we also need to be looking to improve the weight management services available to help children achieve a healthy weight and we need family and community support services in place to help this happen.

Governments know the present childhood obesity epidemic is unsustainable and that doing nothing is not an option.  They have agreed to tackle childhood obesity and to reduce obesity to 2010 levels by the year 2025. They have accepted the need for regulatory measures such as market controls, taxes and subsidies, setting standards for catering services and investment in health-promoting schools. This was emphasised in the report of the WHO Commission on Childhood Obesity published earlier this year. Furthermore, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and Decade of Action on Nutrition and WHO agendas on NCDs and Maternal, Infant and Child Health all individually collectively provide a historic opportunity for countries around the world to take comprehensive action and get to grips with the global burden of obesity.

What we need now is action

First and foremost, governments need to strengthen their leadership to prevent, manage and treat childhood obesity with national childhood obesity strategies. These strategies should be based on the WHO ECHO report recommendations, as a minimum standard, include inter-departmental actions led by ministries of health, use SMART actionable measures to meet the WHO targets on obesity and activity, integrated with the Decade of Action on Nutrition and the SDGs and should include steps to monitor and enforce all stakeholders’ commitments. National governments also need to support national guidelines for clinical care and management of obesity in pregnancy, infancy and childhood, with the resources for their universal application.

Secondly, local governments and services need to take their share of the responsibility for preventing childhood obesity. This means providing health-promoting schools which offer high standards of nutrition, physical activity, health education and community involvement and providing primary health care for women which includes weight guidance in pregnancy and support for breastfeeding. Furthermore, there needs to be support for healthy infant growth, including maternity leave, baby-friendly hospitals, breastfeeding counsellors, mother and child community facilities.

Finally health services need to improve the delivery of weight management and treatment services to ensure access for every person who needs them. This will require appropriate care pathways for children with weight difficulties, including family based interventions through to bariatric surgery. It will involve establishing multidisciplinary teams of trained and specialist health care professionals at community level, covering nutrition, physical activity, psychosocial factors. And it will require the provision of universal access to the necessary interventions and follow-up services.

If governments take the necessary action, in a comprehensive and cross-cutting way, we may just be able to achieve our goal of a healthy future and healthy weight for all.

More information about World Obesity Day is available here: http://www.obesityday.worldobesity.org/