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WHO warns of worsening obesity ‘epidemic’ in Europe

The Covid-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected overweight people and those living with obesity, making them more likely to experience complications and death from the virus



This high calorie fat-laden fast-food meal serves as a complete meal. | Photograph courtesy of UN

Obesity rates have reached “ epidemic” proportions across Europe and are still rising, the World Health Organization (WHO) Office for the region said in a recent published report.

Nearly two thirds of adults, 59 percent, and almost one in three children — 29 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls — is either overweight or obese, the study revealed.

Being chronically overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in Europe. Estimates suggest they cause more than 1.2 million deaths annually, which corresponds to more than 13 percent of total mortality in the region.

Increased cancer risk

Obesity also increases the risk for noncommunicable diseases (NCD), including 13 different types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes. It is likely to be directly responsible for at least 200,000 new cancer cases annually across the region, and this figure is set to rise further in the coming years.

WHO said none of the 53 countries that comprise its European region is on track to meet the agency’s NCD target of halting the rise of obesity by 2025.

Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected overweight people and those living with obesity.

WHO said patients with obesity are more likely to experience complications and death from the virus. Many have also experienced disruptions in accessing obesity management services due to the crisis.

Meanwhile, “unfavorable shifts” in food consumption and physical activity patterns during the pandemic will have effects on health in the years ahead and will require significant effort to reverse.

Changing the trajectory

Obesity knows no borders, said Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO Regional Director, adding that although European countries are diverse, each is challenged to some degree.

“By creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment and innovation in health, and developing strong and resilient health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the region,” he said.

The report lays out a series of interventions and policy options for governments to tackle obesity, emphasizing the need to build back better after the pandemic.

WHO explained that the causes of obesity “are much more complex than the mere combination of unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.”

Latest evidence presented in the report highlights how vulnerability to unhealthy body weight in early life can affect a person’s tendency to develop obesity.

Environmental factors are also driving the rise in obesity in Europe, including digital marketing of unhealthy food to children, and the proliferation of sedentary online gaming, according to the report, which also examines how digital platforms might be used to promote health and well-being.

“Obesity is influenced by the environment, so it is important to look at this problem from the perspective of every stage of life. For example, the life of children and adolescents is impacted by digital environments, including marketing of unhealthy food and drinks,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCD, which produced the report.