The World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) has released a new report targeting the alarming obesity rates amongst young children worldwide. The Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity is particularly worried about the increasing prevalence of overweight and obesity amongst very young children under the age of 5. In 2014, approximately 6.1% of children aged under 5 were considered overweight or obese. This corresponds to at least 41 million children in this age category being overweight globally.
The findings stress the importance of renewed political commitment for addressing this public health hazard. Obese children are at greater risk of suffering adverse physical, sociological and psychological consequences. Furthermore, childhood obesity often leads to lifelong obesity, emphasising the importance of intervening in an early stage and at a young age.
Especially children in low- and middle-income countries seem to be at risk, as these countries show the steepest rise in the number of obese and overweight children. The statistics from 2014 show that close to 48 % of all overweight and obese children under the age of 5 live in Asia, while 25 % of overweight and obese children in this age category live in Africa. This means the number of young children suffering from obesity in Africa has almost doubled compared to the year 1990.
Six recommendations to reduce childhood obesity
The Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity has formulated 6 recommendations aimed at governments on how to reduce overweight and obesity prevalence in young children.
1. Increasing healthy food intake through promotion: Governments should develop and implement extensive programmes promoting the intake of healthy foods and discouraging the intake of unhealthy foods. The latter can be accomplished through taxation on food that is high in added sugar or saturated fats, and through restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food choices.
2. Promote physical activity: Governments should pursue programmes which promote physical activity and alter the sedentary lifestyles of children and teenagers.
3. Improve preconception and pregnancy care: Governments can reduce the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (such as metabolic syndrome and obesity) by offering guidance on preconception and prenatal care. As the basis for obesity is often already established before a child is born, this strategy is tailored towards preventing low or high birth weight, prematurity and other complications that can occur during pregnancy.
4. Early childhood diet and physical activity: Governments should educate and inform people on the importance of a healthy diet, quality sleep and physical activity in early childhood. This way children will develop healthy habits at an early age, which will help them in becoming healthy, strong and thriving adolescents and adults. Concretely governments could promote breastfeeding, ensure the availability and affordability of healthy food options and promote physical activity in early childhood care settings. Governments could furthermore discourage the excessive intake of fatty, sugary or salty foods.
5. Health, nutrition and physical activity for school-age children: Governments need to have programmes in place which improve health and nutrition literacy amongst school-age children. These children should also be made aware of the importance of physical activity. Concretely governments can set standards for school meals, diminish the sale of unhealthy food options and obligate schools to offer lessons and activities pertaining to health, nutrition and physical activity.
6. Weight management: Governments should provide services tailored towards managing children’s and young people’s weight and health. Where appropriate, these services should incorporate the environmental and social factors contributing to a child’s obesity.
The six recommendations are summarised in the following figure (WHO, 2016).