Families cannot tackle childhood obesity alone, EU study says

A key finding of the study was that the rates of overweight and obese children vary widely between European regions. [Gaulsstin / Flickr]

The family environment is not able to overcome childhood obesity without governmental support, a new report has found.

After five years of examining the health factors of more than 16,000 children in eight EU countries, the EU-funded I.Family study, which was published today (9 February), concluded that “government intervention is vital” in fighting obesity.

A key finding of the study was that the rates of overweight and obese children vary widely between European regions, from around 40% of children aged two to ten years old in southern Italy to less than 10% in Belgium. Socioeconomic status had a major effect on these rates.

“Our findings clearly show that children from disadvantaged families are more often overweight and obese than those from more advantaged groups, so it’s vital that extra efforts are made to target those worst off with bold policies designed to offer them the support they need,” I.Family study coordinator Dr Wolfgang Ahrens emphasised.

Over the course of the study, researchers also found that almost twice as many children from medium or low socioeconomic status became overweight or obese over a period of six years compared with families of higher socioeconomic status.

Obesity is directly connected to a host of non-communicable diseases, including more than 50% of type-2 diabetes cases and 60% of cardiovascular diseases. Children who are obese are more likely to develop diseases like these later in life and can even have medical complications when they are young.

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Malta to focus on childhood obesity

Childhood obesity in Europe is increasing: in 2010, about one in three European children between the ages of six and nine were overweight or obese, while 2008 estimates were only about one in four.

In an interview with euractiv.com, Health Minister of Malta Chris Fearne said tackling childhood obesity was one of the two main health priorities of his country’s EU presidency.

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“Malta has a high level of obese children and we estimate that 10% of our health budget goes to the direct consequences of obesity and about 17% preventable deaths are related to obesity,” Fearne said. “So obesity is a huge burden for the health sector and our nations’ health […] Of course, this is the case across Europe,” he added.

According to the 2014-2020 EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity, “7% of national health budgets across the EU are spent on diseases linked to obesity each year,” and about 2.8 million deaths each year in the EU are from causes associated with obesity.

The Commission’s DG Health & Food Safety has commissioned a report on the mid-term implementation of the Action Plan.

The report will provide a snapshot (indicators, policies and activities) in the different EU member states while the draft will be discussed at an expert workshop planned on 22-23 February 2017 in Malta.

Fredrik Erixon, Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy (ECIPE), recently said, “There is a strong case to be made for policy leaders to give greater attention to obesity. The growth of obesity needs to be addressed and European countries need better prevention policies for that to happen. Furthermore, there also has to better policies to treat people that already suffer from obesity and associated diseases”.

“As the medical science has rapidly advanced its understanding of obesity, and now agreed on clinical guidelines for surgeries of obese patients with type-2 diabetes, it is time for political leaders to respond to the opportunities created by new innovation,” he noted.

“The EU does not take a leading role in devising healthcare policies in Europe. Still, it has increased its ambitions in helping governments to reduce the growth of obesity. However, the EU can do more – and there is a natural role for it in helping governments to learn from best practices and to evaluate how well, or bad, they are responding to the obesity challenge,” Erixon added.

  • 22-23 February 2017: Discussion on the Commission's draft report of the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity.

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