Stark warning on childhood obesity problem

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The Independent Online

On every continent, child's waistlines are expanding, driven by low energy lifestyles and high energy foods. "Global fattening" poses an equal threat to global warming, according to obesity specialists. Estimates published today suggest that the proportion of school-age children in Europe who are obese has risen almost 50 per cent since the late 1990s and will nearly double to 6.4 million by 2010.

The number who are overweight is expected to grow by 1.3 million a year to a total of 26 million across the EU in four years, more than one-third of the child population, the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) says.

Similar increases have been seen in North and South America, the Middle East and the Pacific region, the association says. As prosperity grows, so do bottoms. Reports last week suggested the West's passion for fast food may be on the turn, with restaurant closures announced by McDonald's in the UK and a collapse in profits at Britvic, the soft drinks manufacturer. Sales of healthy alternatives and of fruit and vegetables are sharply up.

But the change will come too late for many. The accretion of adipose tissue on developing bodies is already having a damaging effect on their health.

More than one million children in Europe are estimated to have high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels, putting them at risk of heart disease, and 1.4 million may have early stages of liver disorder, the association says. Overeating has resulted in 20,000 children suffering from so called "adult onset" or type-2 diabetes, not previously seen in children, while more than 400,000 have impaired glucose tolerance, a pre-diabetic stage which puts them at sharply increased risk of the condition.

Professor Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force, the research and advocacy arm of the IASO, said that the problem was not confined to Europe. "We may well be markedly underestimating the morbidity relating to this problem," he said.

Almost half of children in North and South America will be overweight in four years on present trends. The problem of obesity in schools is described by the US surgeon general as "every bit as threatening to us as is the terrorist threat we face today".

A sign of the change can be seen in the transformation in American football players. In 1960, a 250lb player was considered a giant. This year more than 550 players weighing over 300 lbs (21 stone) were on NFL rosters. The average US soldier is 22lbs heavier than his Second World War counterpart.

Tim Lobstein, co-ordinator of research on child obesity for the task force, said: "The obesity estimates are very cautious but extremely worrying. When we looked at the figures it was astonishing that nearly half of children in both North and South America could be overweight in just four years' time. In Europe we are seeing substantial increases with overweight numbers at 38 per cent - up 60 per cent on the level that we saw throughout the 1990s."

He added: "It reinforces the need for immediate action to stop this runaway trend. We can only do this if we seriously ... cut down the consumption of empty extra calories in high fat and high sugar food products, and do much more to improve children's opportunities to be active."

The findings are published in the first edition of the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity.