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Childhood Obesity Epidemic: 41 Million Kids Under 5 Are Obese Globally

The Short of It

The UN World Health Organization has released its Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity report, and it says the global number of overweight children has reached an alarming level.

The Lowdown

There are now 41 million children under 5 years old who are obese, according to figures released by the WHO. Those numbers are up from 31 million in 1990. The WHO report encompasses two years of research in more than 100 countries, and it points to biological factors, inadequate access to healthy foods, a decline in physical activity in schools, and the unregulated marketing of fattening foods as driving the epidemic.

Peter Gluckman, co-chair of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, called the epidemic "an exploding nightmare in the developing world." Here's how it breaks down: In Africa, the number of overweight or obese children under 5 years old nearly doubled from 1990 to 2014, from 5.4 million to 10.3 million. The number of overweight children in lower middle-income countries more than doubled over the same period, from 7.5 million to 15.5 million. And in 2014, 48 percent of all overweight and obese children under 5 years old lived in Asia.

"What's the big message?" asked Gluckman. "It's not the kid's fault."

The Upshot

To date, the childhood obesity epidemic hasn't been treated as a grave public health issue, and according to the report, was dismissed by some as a product of lifestyle choices by individuals and families. The commission is now suggesting an integrated response among governments, global health institutions, and individuals. The report called for schools to promote health and nutrition literacy and physical activity, and it said sales of sugary drinks and unhealthy foods should be banned from the school environment.

They also recommended issuing guidance on limiting sleep time and screen time, and promoting physical activity for children between 2 and 5 years old.

Still, Gluckman says that's not enough. "Dieting and exercise alone is not the solution," he said. "We have responsibilities on behalf of the world's children to stop them from being overly obese... The WHO needs to work with governments to implement a wide range of measures that address the environmental causes of obesity and overweight, and help to give children the healthy start to life they deserve."

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