Overweight children ‘to be new norm in Europe’

Poor diets and too little exercise mean up to a third of 11-year-olds across Europe -
and two-thirds of Britain’s adults - are too heavy, the World Health Organisation warns

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 6:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 6:14pm

A lack of exercise and unhealthy diets high in fat and sugar are making it common for children and adults in Europe to be overweight, the World Health Organisation has warned.

Up to one third of 11-year-olds across Europe are too heavy, says the UN agency that focuses on international public health.

Greece has Europe's highest proportion of overweight 11-year-olds, at 33 per cent, followed by Portugal (32 per cent), and the Republic of Ireland and Spain (both 30 per cent), the WHO’s European Union data shows.

The figures for children are alarming, says Zsuzsanna Jakab, the WHO’s regional director for Europe. “Our perception of what is normal has shifted; being overweight is now more common than unusual," she says..

“We must not let another generation grow up with obesity as the new norm. Physical inactivity – coupled with a culture that promotes cheap, convenient foods high in fats, salt and sugars – is deadly.”

In 23 out of 36 European countries, more than 30 per cent of boys and girls aged 15 or over are not doing enough exercise, and also eating the wrong sorts of foods, the WHO says.

“We need to create environments where physical activity is encouraged and the healthy food choice is the default choice, regardless of social group,” says Joao Breda, the WHO’s programme manager for nutrition, physical activity and obesity in Europe.

“Physical activity and healthy food choices should be taken very seriously in all environments – schools, hospitals, cities, towns and workplaces. As well as the food industry, the urban planning sector can make a difference.”

Britain’s own figures are not directly comparable, but data from a childhood measurement programme in 2011-12 suggests the problem in England is just as bad as in other European nations, with 35.4 per cent of 10- and 11-year-old boys, and 32.4 per cent of girls the same age overweight. Of these children, 20.7 per cent of boys and 17.7 per cent of girls were obese.

The school-based measurements also show 23.5 per cent of four- to five-year-old boys and 21.6 per cent of girls are overweight.

The WHO’s latest profiles on European nations show that 64.2 per cent of Britain's adult population were overweight in 2008, with 26.9 per cent of these people considered obese.

By 2030, more than a third of Britain’s population – 36 per cent of men and 33 per cent of women – will be obese, the WHO says. Its data shows that only the Czech Republic and Malta now have a higher proportion of overweight adults than Britain.

Britain's data shows that saturated fat makes up 12.7 per cent of the calories in an average adult diet, which is higher than the WHO recommended limit of 10 per cent. The fruit and vegetable intake was only just below the recommended 600 grams per day, at 588g.

The nation also does extremely poorly by comparison with the rest of Europe on breastfeeding. Only 1 per cent of babies were breastfed by the age of six months as the WHO recommends, in 2010.

The WHO's European office criticised the marketing of junk food to children last year in a hard-hitting report. It said children were being surrounded by adverts for foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fat, even in schools and sports centres.

The report expressed concern about the use by food marketers of computer games and smartphone apps that children readily access.

Some countries had managed to contain the problem, said the WHO, but these nations had not succeeded in turning it around.

In France and some Scandinavian countries, the figures appeared to show a plateau effect.

The WHO said these particular countries had implemented policies that the UN agency advises, including promoting the eating of fruit and vegetables in schools, improving the nutritional quality of school lunches, controlling advertising and imposing taxes on some foods, alongside initiatives to encourage more physical activity in children.