Shocking figures show there are now 124 million obese children worldwide – The Guardian

Childhood obesity is soaring across the world, increasing more than tenfold over the past four decades, putting many millions at risk of poor health and an early death, according to the biggest ever analysis of the data.

Alongside the report, and also Monday’s story in the Guardian revealing that the global cost of obesity will be $1.2tn by 2025, the World Health Organisation is calling for every country to act, taking on Big Food to avoid the mounting human and economic costs of obesity-related ill-health in years to come.

The new data from Imperial College London, which is published in the Lancet medical journal, shows that in 1975 there were five million obese girls, but by last year there were 50 million. The number of obese boys has risen from six million to 74 million in the same period.

Global BMI

Dr Fiona Bull of the WHO said the world needs to address the causes of the obesity epidemic by looking at what we eat and why, as well as why we are not more physically active. “What is available, the cost, the pricing and the marketing of individual foods influences our choices every day,” she said.

What the world needs, she said, is to tackle the promotion, marketing, price and advertising of unhealthy food high in salt, sugar and calories. Asked if the WHO thought countries should take on Big Food – the small number of vast food corporations that produce most of the world’s packaged foods – she said yes, pointing to salt and sugar reductions in processed foods and drink in the UK. “The UK has shown it can be done with collaboration from the industry, recognising it is part of the solution.”

Professor Majjid Ezzati, lead author of the childhood obesity study from Imperial College London, said that the governments of most wealthier countries had not been keen to intervene in the market so far, however. “Most high income countries have been reluctant to use taxes and industry regulations to change eating and drinking behaviours to tackle child obesity,” he said. “Most importantly, very few policies and programmes attempt to make healthy foods such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables affordable to poor families.”

BMI then and now in selected countries

The new data shows that child obesity appears to have plateaued in more affluent countries like the UK, but at a high level: one in 10 children are obese. Experts say there is a serious and worsening divide between the richer families and the poorest. Figures from Public Health England show that 11.7% of children in year 6, aged about 11, were obese last year among the richest 5% of the population, but 26% were obese in the poorest 5%.

Meanwhile, obesity in adults continues to rise everywhere. In 1975 there were 100 million obese adults in the world, but by last year that had gone up to 671 million. A further 1.3 billion adults were classified as overweight, which also brings health problems and can lead to obesity.

The largest increase in obese children and adolescents aged five to 19 since 1975 has been in East Asia, the affluent English-speaking countries of the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, an the Middle East and North Africa.

As poor countries – particularly in East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean – have become wealthier, children who were mostly underweight have also become mostly overweight.

“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,” said Professor Ezzati. “The trend predicts a generation of children and adolescents growing up obese and also malnourished. 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.”

Big name confectionary marketing

Also on Tuesday, the Obesity Health Alliance in the UK warned that junk food companies were pouring millions into advertising sweets and soft drinks to children. Between them 18 companies promoting crisps, confectionary and sugary drinks spent £143m on advertising in 2016. Mondelez spent the most, with £12.3m on advertising Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, followed by Coca Cola. The Alliance, an umbrella organisation of leading health charities and medical royal colleges, contrasted the outlay with the £5.2m that the government spent on its anti-obesity Change4Life social marketing campaign.

“It’s like a very unbalanced diet – with children’s health getting a raw deal,” said Caroline Cerny of the Alliance. “Junk food companies are spending tens of millions of pounds a year on promoting their products. Government healthy eating campaigns can’t possibly compete. There’s only ever going to be one winner – so it’s not surprising that the cost of obesity both to people’s health, the NHS and wider society, is spiralling out of control. Something needs to be done urgently to redress the balance.”

Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, said that attempts to promote healthy living could not work without more restrictions on marketing. “The role of advertising in driving us towards unhealthy foods cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to children,” he said. “This is why chocolate and crisps brands are pumping millions into advertising every year. We need the government to go further to protect children from junk food marketing and to safeguard their future health and to avoid having to spend millions dealing with the consequences down the line.”

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