Global childhood obesity rates now 10 times higher than in 1975

Henrietta Brewer
October 11, 2017

More children will be overweight than underweight by 2022 if global trends continue, World Health Organisation experts say.

This stabilisation in overweight and obesity rates is also seen among Irish schoolchildren.

But even more children are underweight than severely overweight, according to the analysis of data from 200 countries.

The almost 200 million children classified as moderately or severely underweight also continue to pose a major public health challenge, the report's authors said.

The team found that there were 74 million obese boys aged 5-19 in 2016, up from six million four decades earlier.

"Continual surveillance by WOF has shown how obesity prevalence has risen dramatically over the past 10 years and with an estimated 177 million adults suffering severe obesity by 2025, it is clear that governments need to act now to reduce this burden on their national economies". An estimated 75 million girls and 117 million boys are moderately or severely underweight, meaning greater than one standard deviation from median on the World Health Organization charts.

Nearly two thirds or the world's children either moderately or severely underweight live in south Asia.

Starting in the late 1970s and continuing through the 1980s, much of sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America were affected. In 2016, the average body mass index for both boys and girls was the lowest but also low in Niger, Senegal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh and India.

Looking at the broader picture, this equated to roughly 5.6% of girls and 7.8% of boys being obese past year.

Overall, one in every five children on the planet is either obese - meaning more than two standard deviations from the median on growth charts - or overweight - meaning more than one standard deviation.

Polynesia and Micronesia had the highest rates of child obesity previous year, 25.4 percent in girls and 22.4 percent in boys, followed by "the high-income English-speaking region" that includes the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain. BMI is a standard measurement that relates weight and height. The red and orange on the Polynesia and Micronesia chart represent children who are overweight or obese; green indicates those who are at a healthy weight.

Children in either category can be stunted if their diet does not include healthy nutrients. Study author Majid Ezzati, a researcher at the college's School of Public Health, and his collaborators say it is the most comprehensive database ever assembled on this topic.

A further 213 million fell into the "overweight" range, with BMIs of between 25 and 29.9.

While obesity in children and teens appears to have plateaued in rich countries, its rise continued in low- and middle-income countries, they found.

"These worrying trends reflect the impact of food marketing and policies across the globe, with healthy nutritious foods too expensive for poor families and communities".

Ezzati also advised that regulations and taxes to protect children from unhealthy foods roll out, or a future generation of children and adolescents growing up obese will be at greater risk of diseases, like diabetes.

Childhood obesity is one of the greatest health challenges of the 21st century.

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