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Food and society

Childhood obesity also has economic and social effects

It is not just health at stake: childhood obesity has a very significant economic and social impact which can only be overcome by tackling the problem on all fronts. The latest edition of Eating Planet, edited by the BCFN, highlights the seriousness of the situation.

For the first time in human history, children have a lower life expectancy than their parents. Our objective must be to resolve this problem within a generation in order to ensure that those children being born today reach adulthood at a normal weight”. The US President Barack Obama used these words to put the spotlight on the serious health problems which childhood obesity is causing in today’s world. Nevertheless, to understand the enormity of this issue, it is also essential to focus on its economic and social impact.

The numbers speak for themselves
Data from the World Health Organisation leaves us in little doubt: there are 170 million children of school age who are overweight or obese. It becomes even more worrying when we consider that this problem does not only affect children in medium or high income countries. Indeed, it is in the medium-low income countries where the amount of overweight children is increasing at its fastest rate. A more in-depth examination shows us that in the USA, a country well-known for its high rate of overweight and obese children, 7 million young people between 2 and 19 years (17% of the total) are obese and a further 15% are overweight. The situation is no better back in Europe, where the rates of overweight and obese children are around 16-22% and 4-6% respectively. This is undoubtedly a result of poor lifestyles, with unhealthy diets and too few hours spent doing physical exercise.

Obese children, sick and “expensive” adults
An obese child is 70% likely to remain obese into adulthood and it is extremely probable that a child who is overweight from a young age will start to experience health problems from the age of 30, including high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases linked to being overweight. The health implications of being overweight are very well-known and experts agree that in order to stop the negative impact which obesity can have on people’s health, it is vital to adopt a healthy lifestyle from early childhood. However, we spend too little time reflecting on the other aspects of the problem: being overweight has a significant economic impact, with effects on governmental and social budgets influencing children’s psychological and physical development. This is shown by the infographic below, taken from an EU publication by gastroenterologists and focused on the effects of being overweight on our health. In other words, an obese person “costs” more than a person of a normal weight, as shown by a recent study carried out in the USA, from which it has emerged that every year overweight and obese children cause an increase in costs of $14.1 billion in outpatient visits, pharmaceuticals and emergency medicines.

Tackling the problem on all fronts
The BCFN experts in the latest edition of Eating Planet are also calling for solutions to the problem, even though, in an “obesogenic” society like ours, this is a very tall order indeed. Everything revolves around food and messages continuously encourage people to try the latest product, regardless of whether it has a healthy nutritional content. In order to remedy this situation of overeating, unbalanced diets and weight gain, it is important to act on a number of different fronts, starting as early as possible and involving the youngest people in our society. Of course, school and family have fundamental roles in educating children on how to lead a healthy lifestyle and prevent obesity. Children eat almost all their meals at home or at school, and we should take the opportunity to serve them healthy and nutritious food, perhaps even getting the children to help in its preparation, as well as promoting physical exercise. Paediatricians and GPs also have an important task: paediatricians track children through their stages of growth, while GPs can give advice to families about changing habits and promoting lifestyles which are better for their health and their budget. All of this can obviously be backed-up by close cooperation from institutions.

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