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Obesity causes 1.2m premature deaths a year in Europe, says World Health Organization

Updated: Jun 28, 2022

WHO Europe's obesity report said there was “undeniable evidence” that early adoption of good nutrition and physical activity is essential for cutting rising obesity levels

According to The World Health Organization's recently-released research study, WHO European Regional Obesity Report 2022, a third of children and almost two-thirds of adults in Europe are obese.

The research found obesity causes 1.2m deaths each year across WHO's 53 member states in Europe.

Researchers recorded a drop in physical activity levels during the pandemic, along with an increased intake of fatty, sugary and salty foods, but, although obesity levels were amplified by the pandemic, their cause runs far deeper in society.

The report aims to highlight the behavioural changes needed to overcome the global obesity problem by identifying interventions such as physical activity, education and diet.

"Obesity poses an increasing challenge in Europe, with one in three school-aged children, one in four adolescents and almost 60 per cent of the adult population now living with being overweight or obese,” explained Dr Hans Henri Kluge, WHO’s regional director for Europe. “Raised body mass index (BMI) is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases, including cancers and cardiovascular diseases.”

In response to general widespread criticism that BMI – which is based solely on someone’s height and weight – is misleading, it was acknowledged that “there are limitations to the use of BMI as the sole measure” for defining obesity. The report noted other measures that could be used in the future. These include waist circumference, waist-to-height ratio, body adiposity index (BAI) and body shape index (BSI).

The study took a close look at how our modern environment drives the obesity epidemic by examining the relationships between food and physical activity, and the socio-cultural, physical, economic, and political factors that influence the food populations eat, along with their level of activity. Online gaming and the digital marketing of unhealthy food products are highlighted as problem areas.

Obesity was linked to at least 13 types of cancer, including breast, liver and ovarian, and Dr Nina Berdzuli, director of the division of country health programmes at WHO Europe, emphasised the importance of encouraging healthy lifestyles and increasing physical activity levels.

According to the report’s findings, there is undeniable evidence that the early adoption of good nutrition and physical activity is essential to improving the future of global health.

Dr Francesco Branca, the director of the department of nutrition for health and development, believes the WHO's Sustainable Development Goal 2 ('Achieve Zero Hunger' and 'Improve Nutrition') and Sustainable Development Goal 3 ('Ensuring Healthy Lifestyles' and 'Promoting Wellbeing') will not be achieved if society continues on the same path.

For teenagers, data showed that fewer than 20 per cent follow physical activity recommendations and almost 50 per cent do not eat fruit or vegetables. The report recognised that no single “intervention” could reduce the spread of obesity, but outlined a range of interventions and potential policy areas that could reduce obesity levels through diet, education and physical activity targets.

Recommendations for physical activity include the provision of physical activity counselling and referral as part of healthcare services, safe access to open spaces and the promotion of physical activity through sports groups and clubs.

The quality of physical education, facilities and programmes in schools and the availability of physical activity schemes in the workplace were both highlighted.

“I'm hopeful we can change the trajectory of obesity in Europe by creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment in health, developing strong and resilient health systems and innovating for better health and improved health governance,” concluded Kluge.


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