1 in 3 children in the WHO European Region is living with overweight or obesity

The spouses of 16 European leaders and heads of state came together in the Croatian capital today, under the auspices of First Lady of Croatia Dr Sanja Musić Milanović, to launch the first-ever Network of Spouses of European Leaders on the Prevention of Childhood Obesity in the WHO European Region. They have unanimously adopted the Zagreb Declaration, laying out their political commitment to addressing childhood obesity in their countries and urging other countries to do the same.

Childhood obesity data paint an alarming picture. According to the WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022, roughly 1 in 3 primary school-aged children in the Region is living with obesity or overweight, and this is only set to rise further.

Based on current trends and looking exclusively at obesity in the WHO European Region, which covers 53 countries across Europe and central Asia, the World Obesity Federation’s World Obesity Atlas 2023 projects that between 2020 and 2035 there will be:

  • a 61% increase in the number of boys living with obesity
  • a 75% increase in the number of girls living with obesity.

The Atlas estimates that a total of 17 million boys and 11 million girls aged 5–19 will be living with obesity in the Region in 2035. By then, overweight and obesity across all age groups are projected to cost the Region US$ 800 billion annually.

WHO/Europe has identified 3 specific actions to counter current projections and help prevent this silent epidemic from getting worse.

  1. Emphasizing prevention. Efforts to reduce childhood obesity must start early – right from pregnancy and early childhood. Prevention should focus on good nutrition at all stages of a child’s life, and efforts are needed in homes, schools and the wider community.
  2. Regulating the food and beverage industry. The most effective policies to tackle childhood obesity include imposing a tax on sugary drinks, requiring clear front-of-package labelling and restricting marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
  3. Promoting physical activity. This includes better urban design and transportation policies, physical activity in the school curriculum and extracurricular activities, and clear messaging to support active lifestyles throughout the life course.

“Our children are increasingly growing up in environments that make it very difficult for them to eat well and be active. This is a root cause of the obesity epidemic,” said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “As societies and countries, we have so far failed to reverse the rising rates of childhood obesity, and that’s why WHO/Europe is here in Croatia, at the invitation of Dr Milanović, spouse of the President, to galvanize political support for this truly insidious public health crisis before it becomes even more difficult to address.”

Dr Milanović expressed, “Childhood obesity is a disease of epidemic proportions, and Croatia, along with our entire European Region, is among the most affected. It is a disease that not only negatively affects the health, quality of life and life expectancy of our population, but also represents a significant economic burden for our society. It is estimated that in Croatia, as well as in the entire European Region, more than 2% of gross domestic product goes to obesity-related costs.”

She added, “Here at the Zagreb Summit, we have had the opportunity to clearly demonstrate that obesity knows no borders – it is our common problem, and we can only approach it together, at the European level, and by including numerous sectors of society. I believe that the Zagreb Declaration is an important step for halting the rise of childhood obesity in the entire European Region, and that with joint action we will improve and preserve the health of future generations.”

The link between obesity and a range of diseases

Overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in the Region. Recent estimates suggest that they cause more than 1.2 million deaths annually, corresponding to more than 13% of total mortality.

Obesity increases the risk for many noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases. Obesity is also considered a cause of at least 13 different types of cancer, and is likely to be directly responsible for at least 200 000 new cancer cases annually across the Region – with this figure set to rise further in the coming years.

Overweight people and those living with obesity have also been disproportionately affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, often experiencing more severe disease and other complications.

“Because obesity is so complex, influenced by different factors like genetics, environment and socioeconomic status, no single intervention can halt its rise,” explained Dr Kluge. “Any national policies aiming to address the issues of overweight and obesity must have high-level political commitment behind them. They should also be comprehensive, reaching individuals across the life course and targeting inequalities.”

The Regional Director concluded, “We hope we can count on the spouses of European leaders and heads of state to champion tackling childhood obesity in their countries and help elevate it onto political and corporate agendas. The Zagreb Declaration issued today is an important first step. Only by working together, across cultures, sectors and political divides, will we be able to stem the tide of childhood obesity, and contribute to a healthier future for all.”

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