New data on almost 13 million people, from 200 countries around the world, points to a tenfold increase in obesity rates among children and adolescents over the last four decades. This is the largest study of its kind and it paints a startling and depressing picture of a world that is getting fatter.
The research also reveals that the rise in child and adolescent obesity rates in high income countries is beginning to slow down. And that in low and middle income countries — especially in Asia — it is accelerating.
These findings should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity is an issue with no geographical, ethnicity, age or gender boundaries. Rather, obesity is the inevitable consequence of an “obesogenic” environment that we have constructed for ourselves. If we surround children with foods that are high in fat and sugar and restrict their opportunities to run around, they are at risk of developing obesity.
Obesity rates are a visible sign that all is not well with the world and it is just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface, the burden of chronic diseases is growing and nobody is immune.
Not enough play, too much junk food
The problem is that we have restructured our environment to be the exact opposite of what we need to maintain our energy balance.
On one side of the equation, our food supply is dominated by energy dense, nutrient poor foods that are available 24 hours a day. In the United States alone, companies spend $1.79 billion annually to market unhealthy food to children, compared with only $280 million on healthy foods. In Canada over 90 per cent of food and beverage product ads viewed by children and youth online are for unhealthy food products.
On the other side of the energy balance equation, our towns and cities have been designed to support motorized transportation, instead of human-powered movement through walking or cycling. This creates a dependency on cars that further impacts individual physical activity.
More than 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads every year, with 90 per cent of deaths occurring in low or middle-income countries. The result is that fewer people walk or cycle. Many parents are concerned about the safety of their children, meaning that fewer children engage in spontaneous activity or experience the health and development benefits of free play outdoors.
Having engineered regular bouts of physical activity out of our children’s lives, we then try to squash it back in through organized sport. But this creates additional challenges for families, as I have discovered in research conducted in collaboration with colleagues at Dalhousie and Acadia University. In this study, parents noted how fitting organized activities into their lives led to a reliance on foods eaten outside the home.
So we have one healthy behaviour — physical activity — competing with, and in some cases displacing, another — healthy nutrition. This takes us right back to the energy-in side of the energy balance equation.
This was originally published by The Conversation.