Obesity: why the WHO is alarmed by an “epidemic” of overweight in Europe

An “epidemic” of overweight and obesity, responsible for more than 1.2 million deaths a year, is raging in Europe, worries the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday in a new report. “Rates of overweight and obesity have reached epidemic proportions across the region and continue to rise,” lamented in a press release the European branch of the organization which brings together 53 states. In Europe, almost a quarter of adults are now obese, making the prevalence of obesity higher than in any other region except the Americas, according to the WHO.

More than 1.2 million deaths per year

No country in the region can currently claim to stop the progression and the scale of the problem was revealed with force during the Covid-19 pandemic where overweight was a risk factor. “Increased body mass index is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases, including cancer and cardiovascular disease,” WHO Europe director Hans Kluge said in the report. Overweight and obesity are thus the cause of more than 1.2 million deaths per year, representing more than 13% of deaths in the region, according to the study.

Obesity is the cause of at least 13 different types of cancer and likely to be directly responsible for at least 200,000 new cases of cancer per year, according to the WHO. “This figure is expected to increase further in the coming years,” the organization warned. The latest comprehensive data available, which dates back to 2016, shows that 59% of adults and nearly one in three children (29% of boys and 27% of girls) are overweight in the Old Continent.

Obesity reinforced by the Covid pandemic

In 1975, barely 40% of European adults were overweight. The prevalence of obesity in adults has soared by 138% since that date, with an increase of 21% between 2006 and 2016. According to the WHO, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it possible to take the measure the impact of the overweight epidemic in the region. The restrictions (closing of schools, confinement) have at the same time “led to an increase in exposure to certain risk factors which influence the probability that a person will suffer from obesity or overweight”, underlined Hans Kluge. The pandemic is causing harmful changes in eating and sports habits, the lasting effects of which must be reversed, argued the WHO.

“Policy interventions that target the environmental and market determinants of unhealthy diets… are likely to be most effective in reversing the epidemic,” she said. There is also a need to tax sugary drinks, subsidize healthy foods, limit the marketing of unhealthy foods to children and support efforts to encourage physical activity throughout life.

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