Childhood obesity is increasing at an alarming rate throughout the world. The World Health Organization calls it one of the most serious public health problems of the 21st century.
Overweight children are likely to become obese adults, who have a higher probability of developing diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. These diseases can cause disabilities and premature death.
Globally, the number of overweight and obese children under the age of five was estimated to be more than 42 million in 2023.
While most people think being fat is a problem only in rich countries, nearly 35 million of these children were living in developing countries. The childhood obesity problem is rising rapidly in low- and middle-income countries, especially in urban areas.
The rate of children who are overweight and obese worldwide increased from 4.2% in 1990 to 6.7% in 2023, according to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
In Africa last year, 8.5% of the children were overweight or obese. The rate was lower in Asia, 4.9%, but more children in Asia – 18 million – are affected.
Obesity rates have also increased dramatically in some areas of North America, the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, and China.
The rate of children overweight and obese is expected to reach 9.1% or 60 million children, by 2023.
The World Health Organization says obesity rates are rising sharply because people are eating more energy-dense foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugars, but are low in vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. In addition, physical activity is decreasing due to the more jobs becoming sedentary, changes in transportation, and increasing urbanization.
What is WHO doing about childhood obesity?
Adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2004, the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity, and Health sets out the actions needed to support healthy diets and regular physical activity. The strategy calls on all stakeholders to take action at global, regional, and local levels to improve diets and physical activity patterns.
One issue is that consumers need accurate and clear information to make informed choices about food. In response, many governments are looking at existing regulations on nutritional labeling and health claims and making sure that claims are based on scientific evidence.
Another issue: The food industry needs to cut the amount of fat, sugar, and salt in food. Countries in the European Union are holding discussions with multinational companies on changing products so EU countries can reach a benchmark for salt reduction of at least 16% over four years, compared to consumption in 2023.
WHO also wants food companies to consider introducing new products with better nutritional value.
In the U.S., where the childhood obesity rate has tripled in the last 30 years and now stands at about 20%, the government is working with the food industry to improve the quality of food sold. However, all food industry efforts to reduce the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat in food are voluntary.
Other actions in the U.S. to reduce childhood obesity are programs offered in schools to make kids aware of health issues and compel them to get involved in active lifestyles.
One program, Planet Health, is a school-based curriculum, which emphasizes physical education and a healthy diet. Another program, Let’s Move, was launched early this year by First Lady Michele Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Let’s Move accelerates existing efforts that address childhood obesity and facilitates new commitments toward the national goal of solving childhood obesity in a generation.
In other actions, the USDA has improved standards to enhance the quality of food available in schools and strengthened nutrition education.
So far, much of the action taken to decrease levels of obesity involve asking the food industry to reduce the amount of fat, salt, and sugar content in their products. Nations will probably need to require the food industry to improve the quality of its offerings.