New WHO report: Europe can reverse its obesity ‘epidemic’

Copenhagen, Denmark, May 03, 2022

The new WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022, released on May 3 by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, reveals that rates of overweight and obesity have reached epidemic proportions across the Region and continue to rise, with currently none of the 53 Member States in the Region on track to meet the WHO global noncommunicable disease (NCD) goal of halting the rise in obesity by 2025.

New data on obesity and overweight

The report, launched at a press conference on May 3 and presented at the European Congress on Obesity, reveals that in the European Region, 59% of adults and almost 1 in 3 children (29% of children and 27% of girls) are overweight or living with obesity. The prevalence of adult obesity in the European Region is higher than in any other WHO Region except the Americas.

Overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in the European Region, with recent estimates suggesting that they cause more than 1.2 million deaths per year, corresponding to more than 13% of mortality total in the region.

Obesity increases the risk of many NCDs, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus, and chronic respiratory disease. For example, obesity is 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 per year throughout the Region, with this number expected to rise further in the next years. Overweight and obesity are also the main risk factor for disability, causing 7% of the total years lived with disability in the Region.

Overweight people and those living with obesity have been disproportionately affected by the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been unfavorable changes in food consumption and physical activity patterns during the pandemic that will have effects on the health of the population for years to come and will require significant effort to reverse.

Obesity in Europe: an ongoing “epidemic”

To address the growing epidemic, the report recommends a set of interventions and policy options that Member States can consider to prevent and address obesity in the Region, with an emphasis on building back better after the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Obesity knows no borders. In Europe and Central Asia, no single country is going to meet the WHO global NCD target of halting the rise in obesity,” said Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe. “The countries in our Region are incredibly diverse, but each faces challenges to some degree. By creating environments that are more conducive, promoting investment and innovation in health, and building strong and resilient health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the Region.”

Obesity is a disease, not just a risk factor

Obesity is a complex disease that presents a health risk. Its causes are much more complex than the mere combination of unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. This report presents the latest evidence and highlights how vulnerability to unhealthy body weight in early life can affect a person’s tendency to develop obesity.

Environmental factors unique to living in the highly digitalized societies of modern Europe are also drivers of obesity. The report explores, for example, how the digital marketing of unhealthy food products to children and the proliferation of sedentary online games are contributing to the rising tide of overweight and obesity in the European region. However, it also looks at how digital platforms can also provide opportunities for health and wellness advocacy and discussion.

Policy measures: what can countries do?

Addressing obesity is central to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and is a priority reflected in the WHO European Work Program 2020-2025.

New WHO report outlines how policy interventions that target environmental and trade determinants of poor diets across the population are likely to be most effective in reversing the obesity epidemic, addressing dietary inequalities and achieving environmentally sustainable food systems. .

Obesity is complex, with multifaceted determinants and health consequences, which means that no single intervention can stop the rise of the growing epidemic.

Any national policy that aims to address the problems of overweight and obesity must have a high-level political commitment behind it. They must also be comprehensive, reaching people throughout life and focusing on inequalities. Efforts to prevent obesity must consider the broader determinants of the disease, and policy options must move away from approaches that focus on people and address the structural drivers of obesity.

The WHO report highlights some specific policies that show promise in reducing levels of obesity and overweight:

  • the implementation of fiscal interventions (such as the taxation of sugary drinks or subsidies for healthy foods);
  • restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods for children;
  • improving access to obesity and overweight control services in primary health care, as part of universal health coverage;
  • efforts to improve diet and physical activity throughout the life course, including preconception and pregnancy care, breastfeeding promotion, school-based interventions, and interventions to create environments that improve accessibility and affordability of healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.

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