Asia is home to nearly half the world's obese children, accounting for three quarters of the cases when combined with Africa. The rise in childhood obesity in low and middle-income countries is an alarming trend, one that requires "high-level action," said the World Health Organization (WHO) in a Jan. 25 report.
More obese infants and children live in low and middle-income countries than in high income countries, stated the WHO in its Ending Childhood Obesity (ECHO) report [pdf]
It's "an exploding nightmare in the developing world," said Peter Gluckman, co-chair for the ECHO commission.
The ECHO report, which took two years to complete, found that there are about 41 million obese children under the age of 5 years old. The figures on overweight children over the age of five may be even more alarming than that, but the WHO does not have numbers on that group.
It's a symptom or a side effect of globalization and urbanization, but it's also the result of common misconceptions held by cultures and governments all over the world.
Children are increasingly being raised in obesogenic environments, where fatty foods are the most affordable option or are the only choice.
"Children are exposed to ultra-processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods, which are cheap and readily available," said the WHO.
On top of that, urbanization has taken some of the physical activity out of the life curriculum for kids growing in low and middle-income areas. The conveniences of urbanization are cutting out the lugging books to school, the delivery of pails from the well and many other common tasks that ensured physical activity regularly.
Now, many countries aren't just facing the type of malnutrition that comes from not having enough to eat. In addition to undernutrition, they're now facing the variety of malnutrition that comes from eating too much of the wrong thing.
Making matters worse, many cultures perceive an overweight child as one that is healthy and is well off.
"Cultural values and norms influence the perception of healthy or desirable body weight, especially for infants, young children and women. In some settings, overweight and obesity are becoming social norms and thus contributing to the perpetuation of the obesogenic environment," said the WHO.
The WHO's Cure
It may take a village to raise a child, but a government may be needed to ensure that the child has access to all of the knowledge and support needed to thrive at a healthy weight.
"Increased political commitment is needed to tackle the global challenge of childhood overweight and obesity," Gluckman said. "WHO needs to work with governments to implement a wide range of measures that address the environmental causes of obesity and overweight, and help give children the healthy start to life they deserve."
The WHO is calling for a whole-government, whole-society approach to combat childhood obesity and has laid out several strategic objectives addressing the issue.
Governments, including government institutions like schools, will need to address the obesogenic environments and break the bad habits that have been normalized. They'll need to address the life course of obese children, including the ones not yet born.
The WHO and its ECHO commission also made several recommendations that include programs to promote healthy foods, programs that promote physical activity and initiatives to spread education on obesity and related noncommunicable diseases.