The new WHO European Regional Report for 2022 on Obesity, published on 3 May by the WHO Regional Office for Europe, reveals that overweight and obesity levels have reached epidemic proportions across the region and are still escalating, with no one of the 53 member states of the region on track to meet the WHO’s goal of a global non-communicable disease (NCD) to halt the rise in obesity by 2025.
New data on obesity and overweight
The report, presented at a press conference on 3 May and presented at this week’s European Congress on Obesity in Maastricht, the Netherlands, reveals that in the European region, 59% of adults and almost 1 in 3 children (29% boys and 27% girls) have overweight or living with obesity. The prevalence of adult obesity in the European region is higher than in any other WHO region except the United States.
Overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in the European region, with recent estimates showing that they cause more than 1.2 million deaths a year, corresponding to more than 13% of total deaths in the region.
Obesity increases the risk of many NCDs, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and chronic respiratory disease. For example, obesity is thought to be the cause of at least 13 different cancers and is likely to be directly responsible for at least 200,000 new cancers a year across the region, a figure that will rise further in the coming years. Overweight and obesity are also the leading risk factors for disability, causing 7% of the total years spent with disabilities in the region.
Overweight people and those living with obesity are disproportionately affected by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been adverse changes in food consumption and patterns of physical activity during the pandemic that will have an impact on the health of the population in the coming years and will require significant efforts to address.
Obesity in Europe: an ongoing ‘epidemic’
To tackle the growing epidemic, the report recommends a set of interventions and policy options that Member States may consider to prevent and tackle obesity in the region, with a focus on recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Obesity knows no bounds. In the regions of Europe and Central Asia, no country will meet the WHO’s global goal of the NCD to halt the rise in obesity. The countries in our region are incredibly diverse, but each faces some challenges. By creating an environment that is more conducive, encouraging investment and innovation in health care and developing strong and sustainable health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the region. ”
Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe
Obesity is a disease – not just a risk factor
Obesity is a complex disease that poses a health risk. The reasons for it are much more complex than the usual combination of unhealthy diet and lack of physical activity. This report presents the latest evidence that highlights how vulnerability to unhealthy weight at an early age can affect a person’s tendency to develop obesity.
Environmental factors that are unique to life in today’s digital European societies are also drivers of obesity. The report examines, for example, how the digital marketing of junk food for children and the proliferation of online games are contributing to the growing flow of overweight and obesity in the European region. However, it also looks at how digital platforms can also provide opportunities to promote and discuss health and well-being.
Policy measures: what can states do?
Tackling obesity is crucial to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and is a priority reflected in the WHO European Work Program for 2020-2025.
A new WHO report outlines how policy interventions addressing the environmental and trade determinants of malnutrition to the entire population are likely to be most effective in reversing the obesity epidemic, tackling nutrition inequalities and achieving environmentally sustainable food systems.
Obesity is complex, with many determinants and consequences for health, which means that no intervention can stop the growing epidemic.
Any national policy aimed at tackling overweight and obesity must have a high-level political commitment. They must also be comprehensive, reach people throughout the life cycle and address inequalities. Efforts to prevent obesity must take into account the broader determinants of the disease, and policy options must move away from approaches that focus on individuals and address the structural drivers of obesity.
The WHO report highlights several specific policies that promise to reduce obesity and overweight:
- the implementation of fiscal interventions (such as the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages or health food subsidies);
- restrictions on the supply of unhealthy foods to children;
- improving access to obesity and overweight management services in primary health care as part of universal health coverage;
- efforts to improve diet and physical activity throughout life, including care before conception and pregnancy, promoting breastfeeding, school interventions and interventions to create an environment that improves the availability and accessibility of healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.