Global report finds one in 10 schoolchildren too fat

Thursday, May 13, 2004

LONDON -- One of every 10 schoolchildren in the world is overweight, and about 45 million have an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and other illnesses before the age of 20, said the first global assessment of child obesity.

The report, compiled by The International Obesity Task Force, estimates that at least 155 million children between the ages of 5 and 17, or about 10 percent of the total, are too heavy, while almost 45 million of them are obese.

The findings were submitted to the World Health Organization before next week's critical vote by the world's health ministers on whether to adopt a global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. The strategy, which the U.N. health agency has been developing for two years, aims to head off a worldwide crisis in chronic diseases linked to bad eating habits and lack of exercise. A third of all deaths globally are from ailments linked to weight, lack of exercise and smoking.

Worldwide, the number of overweight people is greater than the number of hungry people.

The prevalence of overweight people is dramatically higher in rich countries, but rates are rising across the globe, even in developing countries.

In South Africa, 25 percent of teenage girls are too fat -- similar to the average in the United States, which has one of the world's most serious obesity problems.

In Europe, childhood obesity has increased steadily, with the highest prevalence being in southern Europe. About 15 percent of northern European children are overweight, compared with about 30 percent in the south, the report estimates.

In Italy, a recent survey found that 36 percent of 9-year-olds were overweight or obese.

In some developing countries, childhood obesity not only was most prevalent among the wealthy but also was increasing among the urban poor.

In the United States, the number of overweight Hispanic and black children rose twice as fast during the 1990s than in white children, the report found.

The International Obesity Task Force, a coalition of independent obesity scientists and research organizations, called on WHO to help countries develop national obesity action plans, with a high priority set for tackling the prevention of childhood obesity.

"This report is the result of one of the most comprehensive collaborations between experts in the pediatric field, all seriously concerned about what is happening to children throughout the world," said one author, Dr. Ricardo Uauy, chair of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. "We really cannot afford to delay any longer."

Actions that could be taken include providing more opportunities for exercise and play, limiting television viewing and restricting junk food advertising and marketing to children, Uauy said.

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