The number of obese children and adolescents (aged five to 19 years) worldwide has risen tenfold in the past four decades.
This was the finding of a new study led by Imperial College London and the World Health Organisation, WHO. The study was published in The Lancet ahead of World Obesity Day, October 11.
A press statement by WHO on Wednesday warned that more children and adolescents will be obese than moderately or severely underweight by 2022 if the current trend continues.
The study analysed weight and height measurements from nearly 130 million people aged over five years (31.5 million people aged five to 19, and 97.4 million aged 20 and older), making it the largest ever number of participants involved in an epidemiological study.
More than 1000 contributors participated in the study, which looked at body mass index (BMI) and how obesity has changed worldwide from 1975 to 2016.
According to the study, obesity rates in the world’s children and adolescents increased from less than one per cent (equivalent to five million girls and six million boys) in 1975 to nearly six per cent in girls (50 million) and nearly eight per cent in boys (74 million) in 2016.
Combined, the number of obese five to 19 year olds rose more than tenfold globally, from 11 million in 1975 to 124 million in 2016. An additional 213 million were overweight in 2016 but fell below the threshold for obesity.
This case does not however fit into the Nigeria situation as child obesity has remained low despite the global increase.
According to the Global Nutrition Report 2015, Nigeria is currently “on course” of achieving “good progress” in terms of obesity.
Though Nigeria is not one of the high risk countries because of the high prevalence of malnutrition and stunting among children, a survey by the National Bureau of Statics, NBS, showed that there are states where child obesity needs to be paid more attention to.
The Nutrition and Health Situation in Nigeria record for 2015 indicates that prevalence rate of child obesity in the country has been stable – at 1.6 per cent in 2015 as in the previous year.
The study fingered food marketing, policies and pricing behind obesity rise among child and adolescent across the world.
Lead author of the study, Majid Ezzati of Imperial’s School of Public Health, said over the past four decades, obesity rates in children and adolescents have soared globally, and continue to do so in low- and middle-income countries. More recently, they have plateaued in higher income countries, although obesity levels remain unacceptably high.
Mr. Ezzati said these worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities.
“The trend predicts a generation of children and adolescents growing up obese and at greater risk of diseases like diabetes. We need ways to make healthy, nutritious food more available at home and school, especially in poor families and communities, and regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods,” he added.
The authors said that if post-2000 trends continue, global levels of child and adolescent obesity will surpass those for moderately and severely underweight youth from the same age group by 2022.
In 2016, the global number of moderately or severely underweight girls and boys was 75 million and 117 million respectively. Nevertheless, that number of moderately or severely underweight children and adolescents in 2016 still represents a major public health challenge, especially in the poorest parts of the world.
This reflects the threat posed by malnutrition in all its forms, with there being underweight and overweight young people living in the same communities.
According to the study, children and adolescents have rapidly transitioned from mostly underweight to mostly overweight in many middle-income countries, including in East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and this could reflect an increase in the consumption of energy-dense foods, especially highly processed carbohydrates, which lead to weight gain and poor lifelong health outcomes.
Fiona Bull, programme coordinator for surveillance and population-based prevention of non-communicable diseases, NCDs, at WHO, said these data highlight, remind and reinforce that overweight and obesity is a global health crisis today, and threatens to worsen in coming years unless we start taking drastic action.
Ms. Bull urges WHO countries to implement efforts to address the environments that today are increasing children’s chance of obesity.
“Countries should aim particularly to reduce consumption of cheap, ultra-processed, calorie dense, nutrient poor foods. They should also reduce the time children spend on screen-based and sedentary leisure activities by promoting greater participation in physical activity through active recreation and sports.”