WHO Report: COVID-19 pandemic linked to rise in childhood obesity

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WHO Report: COVID-19 pandemic linked to rise in childhood obesity
Obese child | Courtesy

A recent report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) sheds light on the concerning correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in obesity rates among children aged 7 to 9.

Titled "Report on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the daily routine and behaviours of school-aged children: results from 17 Member States in the WHO European Region," the findings underscore the pandemic's influence on children's lifestyles and health outcomes.

The research conducted by WHO/Europe, in collaboration with the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Childhood Obesity at the National Health Institute Dr Ricardo Jorge in Lisbon, Portugal, spanned 17 member states of the European Region from 2021 to 2023.

More than 50,000 children participated in the comprehensive survey, revealing significant shifts in behaviors and well-being.

Key highlights from the study include:

  • 36 percent of children increased their screen time on weekdays, engaging in activities such as watching television, playing online games, or using social media, while 34 percent extended their recreational screen time on weekends.
  • 28 percent experienced a decrease in outdoor activities during weekdays, with 23 percent reporting a decline on weekends.
  • Families reported a rise in consuming home-cooked meals (30 percent), eating together as a family (29 percent), purchasing food in bulk (28 percent), and cooking meals together with children (26 percent).
  • 42 percent of children reported a decline in happiness and well-being, with 1 in 5 expressing increased sadness and 1 in 4 feeling lonelier.

Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, WHO/Europe’s eegionaladviser for nutrition, physical activity, and obesity, emphasised the nuanced nature of the findings

"We cannot afford to ignore these trends." He stressed the need for urgent action to address unhealthy dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles, especially considering that one in three children in the region is living with overweight or obesity," Wickramasinghe said.

Dr Ana Rito, head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Nutrition and Childhood Obesity, echoed these concerns, highlighting the need for concrete evidence to address the long-term health risks associated with childhood obesity.

She emphasized the importance of equipping regions and member states with strategies to tackle future health crises effectively.

The WHO report calls for comprehensive, multisectoral approaches to prioritize healthy eating and physical activity for children across all developmental stages.

Recommendations include implementing marketing restrictions and taxes on unhealthy products, introducing clear nutrition labels on foods, and implementing school-based programs to promote healthy behaviors.

The data provided by WHO will inform and enhance current policies across the region, facilitating the development of plans to address future emergencies and pandemics that may disrupt educational processes or necessitate school closures.

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