Experts urge more action on 'great disgrace' of child obesity

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Food giants are being targeted by the World Health Organisation in a major drive to tackle childhood obesity around the world.

A new WHO report, Ending Childhood Obesity, urges governments to limit the marketing of unhealthy high-calorie and sugar-laden food products and drinks aimed at children.

It also recommends sugary drink taxes such as the one due to be introduced in the UK next year, clear front-of-package labelling listing food contents, and banning the provision of unhealthy food, snacks and drinks in schools.

The raft of guidelines call for disadvantaged communities to be given better access to healthy foods and for measures to ensure that physical activity is part of the "daily routine and curriculum" in schools and other child-care facilities.

Professor Fiona Bull, a member of the WHO working group that spent two years compiling the report, said: "We need to turn our concern into action - more action and more widespread action.

"We are surrounded by environments which market unhealthy, high fat, high sugar, high calorie food. That's what's on the TV, that's what's promoted at bus stops, and that's what children are seeing all day, every day.

"The promotion and the price and the specials, the two-for-ones, the super-sizing - these are the problems that drive overweight and obesity, over-consumption."

Prof Bull was speaking at a briefing in London to launch both the WHO report and a major study highlighting soaring rates of childhood and adolescent obesity around the world.

The research, published in The Lancet medical journal, pulled together data from 31.5 million children and teenagers aged five to 19 who took part in more than 2,000 studies.

It found that globally, the estimated number of obese children and teenagers had risen 10-fold in the past four decades.

Between 1975 and 2016 the number of obese boys in the world went up from six million to 74 million, while a similar trend for girls showed an increase from five to 50 million.

While obesity rates among young people in Europe and the US were said to have plateaued, the authors stressed it was still a serious problem in these regions.

Dr James Bentham, a member of the international team from the University of Kent, said: "This is not an excuse for complacency as more than one in five young people in the USA and one in 10 in the UK are obese."

Girls in the UK had the sixth highest obesity rate in Europe, while boys came 18th on the list. Worldwide, their position in the obesity league table was 73rd and 84th respectively.

Childhood obesity rates in the UK had roughly tripled in the last 40 years.

A girl using a set of weighing scales
Childhood obesity rates in the UK had roughly tripled in the last 40 years (Chris Radburn/PA)

In 1975, 3% of British girls aged five to 19 were classified as obese, a total of 200,000. By 2016 their numbers had risen to 510,000, representing 9.4%.

The percentage of boys who were obese rose from 2.4% to 10.9%, while their numbers increased from 160,000 to 620,000.

While obesity in adults is measured simply using Body Mass Index (BMI), identifying it in children is more complex.

The study authors used a WHO statistical method that looks at levels of deviation from a "normal" average.

Prof Bull said the WHO was talking to food manufacturers to find ways to reformulate products to reduce their sugar, fat and calories.

The impending sugary drink tax had already led to the food companies making changes, she pointed out.

"This tells us something - industry can change," Prof Bull added.

Professor Majid Ezzati, one of the study authors from Imperial College London, said most high-income countries had been reluctant to use taxes and industry regulations to change eating and drinking behaviours to tackle child obesity.

"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," he said.

"Unaffordability of healthy food options to the poor can lead to social inequalities in obesity and limit how much we can reduce its burden."

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said: "It's taken many years for us to reach this point and change will not happen overnight.

"England is at the forefront of addressing childhood obesity - our sugar reduction programme and the Government's sugar levy are world-leading but this is just the beginning of a long journey to tackle the challenge of a generation.

"The evidence is clear that just telling people what to do won't work.

"Whilst education and information are important, deeper actions are needed to help us lower calorie consumption and achieve healthier diets."