DAKAR — The World Health Organization (WHO) says the number of overweight and obese children in the developing world is climbing at an alarming rate and countries need to do more to deal with the associated health risks. In Africa, the number of overweight or obese children has doubled in the past 20 years.
WHO says that an estimated 43 million children worldwide under the age of five were overweight or obese in 2011.
Three-quarters of these children live in low- and middle-income countries, many on the African continent.
The terms overweight and obese refer to calculations of Body Mass Index, what doctors call BMI. They use people’s height, weight and age to assess their amount of body fat and then categorize them as underweight, normal, overweight or obese.
The WHO says being overweight or obese can lead to serious long-term health problems like diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
The director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development, Francesco Branca, says there are a number of reasons why people in the developing world are packing on the pounds.
“The food system is changing and people are consuming more and more food that is manufactured," said Branca. "And often the manufactured food has a high content of sugar, fat and salt. So this is leading to overconsumption of food. Of course, this is also part of a normal change in lifestyle, with increased urbanization and decreased physical activity, as part of less physical labor, more motorized transport. So there are several components.”
Experts say that not getting enough food or the right kinds of food remain a top concern in most of these countries, particularly for children.
Branca says successful policy initiatives, such as urging exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life and the distribution of vitamin and nutrient supplements, have helped to reduced rates of child malnutrition and stunting in recent years.
Now, he said, countries need to get proactive on childhood obesity.
“There is progress in the understanding of this problem, but now we have to be very clear about what the policy gaps are and what the effective actions are… It’s about adequate food, but also the marketing of food to children," said Branca. "And about the balance with the producers who manufacture food that have an adequate quality, and also a reduced content of sugar, fat and salt. And actions on how to shape the availability of this food.”
Branca said stopping the explosion of overweight or obese children isn’t going to be easy. Even developed countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom., haven’t been able to make much of a dent in their numbers.
The current goal set by the WHO's World Health Assembly is to at least keep the percentage of overweight children from going up any further between now and 2025.