UN agencies urge fight against childhood obesity to prevent diabetes

11 November 2004

With more than 22 million children under the age of five either obese or overweight, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) today warned that they risk developing diabetes and must be helped.

Excess weight can also lead to heart disease, cancer and stroke, WHO warned in a press release issued jointly with the International Diabetes Federation (IDF).

"Tracking childhood obesity now is a highly effective way of preventing diabetes in the future," said Dr. Catherine Le Gales-Camus, WHO Assistant Director-General for Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health, in the lead up to World Diabetes Day, marked on 14 November.

"While under-nutrition continues to be a key concern, particularly in developing countries, many children in all regions of the world have poor eating habits and are not getting enough exercise," she added.

According to WHO, about 10 per cent of school-aged children worldwide are overweight or obese – and the situation is getting worse. In the United States, for example, the rate of obesity and overweight among children and adolescents aged 6 to 18 increased from 15 per cent in the 1970s to more than 25 per cent in the 1990s.

But such increases are not confined to developed countries. In China, the rate of overweight and obesity jumped from nearly 8 per cent in 1991 to over 12 per cent in 1997. Similarly, Brazil has also seen a considerable increase in the rate of obesity – from just 4 per cent in 1970s to more than 13 per cent in 1997.

Experts say around 90 per cent of people with the condition have "type 2 diabetes," which is caused by obesity and being overweight.

"Unless we address the underlying causes of the obesity epidemic it has the potential to overwhelm the health systems throughout the world," warned Dr. Gales-Camus. She added that the direct healthcare costs of diabetes already account for up to 15 per cent of annual healthcare budgets.

Experts say increased availability and promotion of food high in fat and sugar mean that children no loner eat the way their parents did. Nor do they do the same amount of physical activity. They see increased urbanization, mechanization, changes in transport systems and several hours spent in front of TVs and computers as some of the factors chiefly responsible for the spread of obesity.

However, WHO said small changes can make a big difference. In Singapore, for example, nutrition education in class, combined with a school environment offering healthy foods and drinks, and special attention for students who were already overweight, resulted in a significant decline in obesity. In the United Kingdom, limiting access to sweet, fizzy drinks at a group of primary schools resulted in slimmer children.