Obesity, overweightedness scale epidemic levels in Europe: WHO

Unfavourable eating habits, activity patterns during COVID-19 pandemic add to problem

By Taran Deol
Published: Thursday 05 May 2022
Obesity, overweightedness scale epidemic levels in Europe: WHO Photo: iStock

Overweight and obesity levels continue to rise in Europe, reaching epidemic proportions and escalating, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). A recent report from the agency also made a case for fiscal policies to promote good food. 

Obesity prevalence for adults is the second highest in the European region, preceded only by the Americas, with 59 per cent of adults, 29 per cent of boys and 27 per cent of girls overweight or living with obesity, the United Nations health agency noted. 

None of the 53 member states in the region are on track to achieve the WHO Global Noncommunicable Diseases target of halting obesity by 2025, according to the WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022 released May 3, 2022. 

There is a temporary decrease in prevalence in those between the ages of 10 and 19.

Dr Hans Henri P Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said: 

Obesity knows no borders. In Europe and Central Asia, no single country is going to meet the WHO Global NCD target of halting the rise of obesity. 

The trajectory of obesity in the region can be changed by creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment and innovation in health and developing strong and resilient health systems, she added. 

The two health indicators are also the leading causes of death and disability, accountable for 1.2 million deaths annually or more than 13 per cent of total mortality, WHO noted. 

Obesity also increases the chances of several NCDs, including 13 different types of cancers (and results in 200,000 new cancer cases every year), cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes mellitus and chronic respiratory diseases. 

Obesity is one of the three broad groups of malnutrition. It results “from an imbalance between energy consumed (too much) and energy expended (too little)”, the global health body said. “Globally, people are consuming foods and drinks that are more energy-dense (high in sugars and fats), and engaging in less physical activity.” 

The other two are undernutrition — which is assessed based on wasting (low weight-for-height), stunting (low height-for-age) and underweight — and micronutrient-related malnutrition — which is assessed based on insufficient intake of vitamins and minerals. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the obesity and overweight issue plaguing Europe. “There have been unfavourable shifts in food consumption and physical activity patterns during the pandemic that will have effects on population health in the years ahead, and will need significant effort to reverse,” the report noted. 

Earlier studies revealed how overweight and obesity prevalence has increased in children in the European nations during the pandemic. The findings include an increase in the consumption of foods high in fat, sugar and salt and a decrease in physical activity.

The report suggests fiscal interventions such as taxing sugar-sweetened beverages or subsidies for healthy foods and restricting marketing directed towards children of unhealthy foods. But the key policy remains to improve management services.

“People living with obesity may benefit from an approach aimed at improving patient-centred health outcomes, rather than weight loss or maintenance alone,” the report noted. Individualised care plans that address the causes of obesity and provide support for behavioural changes are advised, said the report.

In addition, adjunctive therapies (psychological, pharmacological and surgical interventions) could be considered, it added. 

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