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A new report from the World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the importance of structural drivers of obesity. James Ross/Stocky
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has released a new report describing the lack of progress on controlling rising rates of overweight and obesity across Europe.
  • No European nations are on track to achieve the obesity goals set out by the WHO in 2015, according to the report.
  • The organization proposes addressing societal factors that undermine healthy nutrition.

In 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) has established a target of halting a rise in obesity rates as part of their effort to contain the death toll of noncommunicable diseases by 2025. According to the WHO Regional Obesity Report 2022, not one of the 53 nations in the European region is currently on track to meet that goal.

The WHO has released a plan to accelerate progress toward reducing obesity that puts less of the burden on the individual to maintain healthy eating habits.

In a press release announcing the report, the WHO states:

“The new WHO report outlines how policy interventions that target environmental and commercial determinants of poor diet at the entire population level are likely to be most effective at reversing the obesity epidemic, addressing dietary inequalities, and achieving environmentally sustainable food systems.”

Dr. Joshua Petimar, Research Scientist within the Department of Population Medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston told Medical News Today, “Improving nutrition and health requires us to shift our focus from ‘personal responsibility’ toward broader society-wide solutions.”

“Eating behaviors are negatively influenced by many macroscopic factors, such as predatory industry practices, poor food access, unaffordability of healthy foods, and others. Proposed solutions that fixate on individual responsibility without targeting societal factors are not addressing the primary threats to populations’ nutrition and health.”

The report finds that barriers to implementing effective obesity policies include “the continuing narrative that addressing obesity is the responsibility of the individual, and not the responsibility of wider society, including governments.”

Arthur Delcourt, registered dietician and biomedical scientist at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, comments on the report via Twitter, saying, “So sad to note that obesity [continues its] epidemic run throughout the world. According to the new report of WHO, 25% of European citizens [have obesity]… It’s a big failure for politicians, public health organizations, medical staff, and researchers.”

In the press release, the WHO’s Regional Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge stresses the universality of rising obesity:

“Obesity knows no borders. In the Europe and Central Asia, no single country is going to meet the WHO Global NCD target of halting the rise of obesity. The countries in our Region are incredibly diverse, but every one is challenged to some degree.”

“By creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment and innovation in health, and developing strong and resilient health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the Region.”

The report finds that 59% of adults in Europe have overweight or are living with obesity. Among children, 29% of boys and 27% of girls qualify as having obesity.

The problem has been exacerbated during the pandemic, according to research cited by the WHO, resulting in a sharp increase in overweight and obesity rates.

The WHO estimates that overweight and obesity are responsible for more than 13% of deaths — 1.2 million — in the region annually. They are also believed to be the leading behavioral factors behind disability, causing 7% of cases.

Obesity has been linked to cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, and chronic respiratory diseases. With obesity linked to 13 cancers, the WHO considers it “directly responsible” for at least 200,000 new cancer cases each year.

For nations funding national healthcare, obesity is also expensive, directly consuming as much as 8% of overall health costs in EU countries in 2014. The WHO also cites research that found it costs 30% more to treat people with obesity than people without.

The WHO proposes a comprehensive approach to creating a culture that encourages healthy eating, and has announced a suite of policies:

  • “[T]he implementation of fiscal interventions (such as taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages or subsidies for healthy foods)
  • Restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children
  • Improvement of access to obesity and overweight management services in primary health care, as part of universal health coverage
  • Efforts to improve diet and physical activity across the life course, including preconception and pregnancy care, promotion of breastfeeding, school-based interventions, and interventions to create environments that improve the accessibility and affordability of healthy foods and opportunities for physical activity.”

“The @WHO Europe Obesity report emphasizes that high-level political commitment is crucial in supporting national policies on obesity, which will help support health system resilience.”

– The European Association for the Study of Obesity, via Twitter

The WHO addresses the importance of nations gathering the political will to solve the obesity epidemic, saying:

“Any national policies aiming to address the issues of overweight and obesity must have high-level political commitment behind them. They should also be comprehensive, reaching individuals across the life course and targeting inequalities.”

“Efforts to prevent obesity need to consider the wider determinants of the disease, and policy options should move away from approaches that focus on individuals and address the structural drivers of obesity.”