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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Emory Study Highlights High Proportion of Overweight and Obese Children Aged 5 and Under in Europe and Importance of Early Intervention

A study of overweight and obesity prevalence among children under 5 across Europe has revealed high rates in many countries and underlined the need for better surveillance and early intervention in this age group. The study, a review of publicly available data collected and published literature since the year 1998, is by Ms. Rebecca Jones, Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and Dr. João Breda, WHO Regional Office for Europe, Copenhagen, Denmark.

The research found that only 32 of the 53 WHO member states had data available on the nutritional status of children under 5, especially on over-nutrition. The data differed in age ranges evaluated, and whether their cut-offs for overweight / obesity WHO criteria*, the International Obesity Task Force (IOTF) criteria, or country specific. In terms of individual countries Ireland (27 percent) and the UK (23 percent) had the highest levels of obesity in this young age group, followed by Albania (22 percent), Georgia (20 percent), Bulgaria (20 percent) and Spain (18 percent).

Kazahkstan had the lowest obesity rate (1 percent), with other low prevalence nations including Cezch Republic (6 percent), Belgium (7 percent), and Sweden (8 percent).

Dr. Breda says: “While it is generally recognised that nutritional surveillance data are crucial for the development of targeted action and the monitoring progress and success in counteracting obesity, regular assessments of the magnitude of overweight and obesity, particularly in children are not common in the 53 WHO European Member States . Evidence suggests that early intervention before five years of age is necessary if the trajectory to overweight in children is to be arrested and action needs to be taken to have consistent surveillance on this specific population.”

Ms. Jones adds: “We think it is likely that, in countries with lower obesity rates, breastfeeding practices are playing a part as well as incorporation of nutrition education towards mothers and physical activity at young ages. It is possible that in countries with high child obesity, there could be a relationship to adult obesity, since there is strong evidence that child weight status is associated with mother’s weight status particularly at these young ages when a child’s health is solely dependent on the caregiver. Recent research has tied early life nutrition status to long-term health, increasing the necessity for young populations to be on the forefront of policy-makers mind when discussing interventions and places to target.”

In order to obtain better data, Ms. Jones recommends Member States in coordination with the WHO implement a similar plan to that seen in its Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI)** in 21 European countries for children 6-9 years old. She says: “We should take this momentum to move towards the evaluation of other populations. Very young children aged 5 years and under will be difficult to evaluate due to the inability to use schools for sampling. However healthcare facilities are a potential target to achieve this.”