Taxing salty, sugary foods to discourage consumption, restricting junk-food advertising and promoting healthy eating habits and exercise would raise awareness to a health problem that could have long-term effects on already shaky public health systems.
“It’s an issue that is so important with respect to the future health of the population, and the impact this might have - and will have - on the capacity of the health system to be sustainable in the future,” said Roberto Bertollini, the World Heath Organisation’s representative to the European Union.
The campaign against tobacco use - steep taxes on cigarettes, coupled with government regulation of tobacco use and advertising - offer a model for tackling excessive eating.
High taxation of cigarettes “is one of the most effective tools for decreasing the uptake of smoking among young people,” Bertollini said on 1 December at a discussion on family and childhood nutrition sponsored by the Brussels think-tank Friends of Europe.
“The European Union and European nations can play an important role in regulation, taxation and labelling of foods.”
The event featured fresh juices and snacks of muesli, mixed fruit cups and Belgian artisanal yoghurt. But there were no children present at a forum on encouraging families to eat better and be more active.
Europe's growing girth
Some 22 million children in the EU are considered overweight or obese, with the numbers growing by 400,000 per year, according to the European Commission.
A recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) showed that 13.3% of EU children aged 11 to 15 are overweight or obese, with numbers rising for boys in all countries, while declining slightly for girls in Ireland and Britain.
European officials have recognised the threat of creeping rise in weight problems, backing specialised campaigns and promotional events on healthy eating.
But health experts say more could be done, including better health education and organised school activities.
Marcela González-Gross, of the faculty of physical activity and sports sciences at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, said taxation and policy-making are not necessarily the answer to what she described as a “health crisis.”
She noted that obesity rates continue to rise in parts of the United States despite localised efforts to tax fatty foods and restrict salty, sugary snacks and soft drinks in schools. More than 33% of Americans are obese, compared to 10% of Europeans.
“The message is we should look at what we are doing wrong,” González-Gross told EurActiv, saying that parents and schools should be more active in promoting healthy lifestyles through diet and exercise.
That should start at home, in the morning, she said. González-Gros’ studies show that children who skip breakfast tend to be fatter and have more health problems.
Yet a quarter of European adolescents go to school without breakfast, she said, and the numbers rise as teens grow older.
Inactivity contributes to childhood weight issues, González-Gros said: 58% of boys and one-third of girls aged 13-16 get adequate exercise, defined as 60 minutes of moderate-to-intensive activity daily. Exercise also tends to decline as children get older.
Family income and parental education play roles in eating and exercise habits, she said, with weight and health problems tending to be greater in more disadvantaged families.
“There is also a north-south trend in Europe,” González-Gross said, noting that the percentage of obese and overweight children tends to be higher in southern European countries. In Spain, she said, the number of obese and overweight adolescents more than doubled, to 33%, from 1985 to 2002.
Excess weight can have ripple effects throughout life. According to the OECD study, overweight and obese children are at higher risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, as well as mental health problems.
“Excess weight problems in childhood are associated with an increased risk of being an obese adult, at which point certain forms of cancer, osteoarthritis, a reduced quality of life and premature death can be added to the list of health concerns,” the study says.