Experts call for action over unhealthy food as data shows more than tenfold rise in number of obese children over the past four decades.
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.
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.”
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%.