If current trends continue, the World Health Organization warns there will be 70 million obese children globally by 2025.
WHO reports the number of overweight or obese infants and children has increased from 31 million globally in 1990 to 44 million in 2012. Over the same period, it says the number of obese children in Africa alone has risen from four to 10 million.
Peter David Gluckman co-chairs the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, established by WHO’s director-general, Margaret Chan. Chief science adviser to New Zealand’s prime minister, Gluckman said obese children will grow up to become obese adults, who will suffer from diabetes, heart disease, high rates of cancer and other health problems.
People have to understand that children are not little adults, he said. Therefore, tackling obesity among this group will involve a strategy different from that employed among adults.
There are two main ways to intervene in childhood obesity, Gluckman says that “they go together.”
“It is about optimizing the health of mothers, of women, of girls before they get pregnant. Optimizing the conditions of pregnancy. Promoting good breast feeding and weaning behaviors, much of which has been lost, particularly in Western countries,” he said.
“At the same time, you have got to worry about obesity in the environment, reinforce and making sure that there are a number of things that you can do to promote healthy eating and diet in young people,” Gluckman said.
At one time, communicable or infectious diseases were considered the major threat in developing countries. But, now non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, diabetes and cancer are emerging as major challenges.
They are linked to four life-style risk factors, including unhealthy diet, little physical activity and the harmful use of alcohol and tobacco.
A growing problem for future
All these factors contribute to the growing obesity crisis, Gluckman said, emphasizing that what happens in early life determines what happens later in life.
He noted huge problems of obesity in the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean and Middle East.
Countries in sub-Saharan Africa also are at risk, Gluckman said, “countries like Nigeria, Ghana and so forth. We are seeing the co-existence of malnutrition on one hand and obesity on the other hand. And, we are seeing numbers that are really quite astounding, particularly in the urban environment. Children now are living in environments with the lots of use of cooking oil, of fried foods and so forth. It is changing quite rapidly.”
The 15-member commission is composed of social scientists, public health specialists, clinical scientists and economists. It will examine evidence on prevention of childhood obesity and how to reverse it in overweight children. The members will work out a monitoring scheme to see whether their efforts to turn the epidemic around are bearing fruit.
The commission will deliver its report to the WHO director general next year. The World Health Assembly in May will subsequently discuss the recommendations.