NEWS

The EU’s obese youth

About half a million children in Europe are suffering classic health problems of the middle-aged because they are too fat, according to new estimates revealed in Athens this week. The levels of obesity among Europe’s children have been on the rise over the last 15 years, but experts are now starting to see the health consequences emerge on a large scale. In a new analysis presented yesterday and Wednesday at this year’s European Congress on Obesity in Athens, experts reported that high blood pressure, raised cholesterol, damaged blood sugar regulation and other dangerous conditions – which are often referred to collectively as the metabolic syndrome – are increasingly being identified alongside the rising levels of childhood obesity in Europe. «The figures suggest that children in the EU could soon be measuring up to their counterparts in the United States, where the numbers affected by the metabolic syndrome doubled from 910,000 to 2 million in less than 10 years,» said the analysis by the International Obesity Task Force, a network of eminent obesity scientists and policy experts. The group estimated that between 2,000 and 10,000 European children already have the type of diabetes that is usually diagnosed in middle age. As the estimates were unveiled, a statement was delivered to the conference on behalf of EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Markos Kyprianou. He outlined plans for a Europe-wide code of conduct to rein in the marketing of unhealthy food to children and broader policy initiatives across agriculture, education and transport that address the obesity problem. The EU will publish a new strategy on diet and exercise before the end of the year and will submit the document to public consultation with the food industry, anti-obesity activists and others to shape a final plan by the end of 2006, Kyprianou said. The move echoes unprecedented steps taken last year by the World Health Organization, which launched a global strategy on diet and physical activity after health ministers from around the world approved the plan. The proportion of children in Europe who were overweight did not change much between 1974 and 1984. The rate started to creep up between 1984 and 1994, then exploded after 1995, according to figures from the International Obesity Task Force. In Britain, one in five children is overweight or obese. In Spain the figure rises to 30 percent of children, and in Italy it reaches 36 percent. Greece has a similar problem to Italy with 35 percent of children aged between 13 and 17 categorized as obese, it was revealed during the conference. According to US government estimates, 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese. The European statistics on the metabolic syndrome in children were derived using a conservative estimate of obesity rates among European children and comparing that with rates in the United States. The US figures on obesity and the metabolic syndrome were then matched in the same proportion to the European numbers to estimate the scale of the metabolic syndrome among European children. «We think we probably underestimated the dimension of the issue,» said Dr Philip James, chairman of the Obesity Task Force. «This is more than just a warning signal – it is the red light: We need to call a stop to the continuing pressures on children to eat too much and have so little active play,» he said. «We can no longer afford to delay the introduction of strong prevention strategies throughout Europe.»