Taking global action to end childhood obesity

11 October 2016

Hannah Brinsden, Head of Advocacy & Public Affairs at the World Obesity Federation, discusses childhood obesity ahead of World Obesity Day 2016

This year World Obesity Day, which takes place on 11th October, is focusing on childhood obesity. The message is simple: Governments need to up their game and urgently take leadership and comprehensive action to end childhood obesity.

In the last decade, childhood overweight and obesity has risen significantly around the world. Figures from 2013 show that approximately 222 million school-aged children globally are overweight or obese and our latest estimates suggest that this number is set to rise by about 20% by 2025. The impact of this is not to be underestimated. Not only does it put our children’s future health at risk but it impairs their immediate health, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes, raised blood pressure and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This puts our already struggling health systems under more strain. This is preventable and the need for action is unquestionable, but what will it take for the required action to be taken?

Obesity is a chronic form of malnutrition and in many low- and middle-income countries it is often found alongside undernutrition. This means that nutrition policies that promote healthy growth, ensure household nutrition security and protect children from marketing and advertising of foods which have low nutritional quality will be an essential part of our efforts to end childhood obesity.

Arguably we’ve come a long way in nutrition policy over the last few decades. More and more countries are starting to implement marketing restrictions, school meal guidelines, interpretative nutrition labelling and sugar taxes. But it’s not nearly enough. While best practices can be found, very few countries have implemented the full package of multi-sectoral policies. This is despite extensive research and repeated recommendations for action in this area, most recently in the report of the WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity

So why the resistance? Some of this will be due to a lack of capacity, in other cases a result of the prioritisation of other issues. But in most cases it comes down to an issue of political will. Not so much a lack of political will to protect the health of our children, I think you’d be hard pushed to find someone who would admit to that (!), but a lack of political will to challenge the commercial drivers of our unhealthy food environments. This leaves governments exposed to weak and voluntary policies and a leniency in favour of private interests rather than the public good. As a result, childhood obesity, and indeed adult obesity, continues to rise.

If we are to improve the global state of nutrition, strengthen national food sovereignty and reduce childhood obesity we need to consider something different and more far-reaching. If we are to have hope of change, we need to explore legally-binding frameworks to protect and support governments, particularly in regional economic areas and smaller nations. Having a legally binding mechanism would help to define minimum nutritional standards to drive commercial food markets and the operation of global food trade. Further, it would help governments to enact the policies required to end childhood obesity and would help to protect governments and citizens from commercial interests and food markets which often undermine efforts to protect health.  

So this World Obesity Day, we are calling on governments around the world to fulfil their commitments made earlier this year and to take urgent action to end childhood obesity. We must also explore the mechanisms that will be required to effectively implement such a comprehensive package of policies. A legally binding framework to protect diets isn’t about hindering governments, it’s about supporting them in taking the required steps, as difficult as they may appear, to protect the health of citizens all around the world, and to ensure a healthier future for all. 

For more information about World Obesity Day visit www.obesityday.worldobesity.org