From July 26 until August 12, the world’s attention will be turned to London for the 2012 Olympic Games. Images of fit and healthy individuals will be blasted into our homes by way of the world’s media and many of us will spend the duration of the Games in awe of these super human individuals whose physical and mental strength is quite beyond comprehension. Whilst these super humans provide good role models for us adults, they provide even better ones for children. They also have the potential to play a key role in addressing one of the world’s most widespread epidemics - child obesity.
Like the Olympics, childhood obesity is of interest to all countries as in recent years, this global epidemic has escalated with trends for overweight and obesity increasing in both developed and developing countries (Flynn McNeill Maloff et al, 2006) and as Jamie Oliver says in his 2011 TED talk, ‘We have an awful, awful reality right now’.
- Approximately 42 million children under five were estimated to be overweight or obese in 2010, almost 35 million of whom live in developing countries (NOO, 2012).
- In Mexico 1 in 3 children is overweight (Malkin E, 2011) and in Brazil the rate of overweight and obese children increased from 4% in the 1980s to 14% in the 1990s.
- In the United States, child and adolescent obesity levels nearly tripled between the early 1980’s and the 2000’s and in Canada, levels in boys alone increased from 11-30% from the 1980‘s to the 90’s (Flynn McNeill Maloff et al, 2006).
For children obesity can have emotional and psychological impacts and lead to life threatening conditions including diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure among others. A 2008 study found that obese children had prematurely aged neck arteries which were more typical of a 45 year old as opposed to someone their own age (CTV, 2008). Caused by poor diet and physical inactivity, childhood obesity is fuelled by environmental and in some cases genetic factors with obesity in parents posing the greatest risk factor to children (Cole, 2006).
These figures are concerning, not only for the long term impacts that the persistence of this epidemic will have on the health of the world’s population and ultimately their productivity, but also because of the speed with which it is growing. The OECD’s Better Life Index reports that in 21 of the 34 OECD countries, more than 50% of the adult population is overweight or obese and that over the past 20 years rates of obesity have more than doubled in these countries (OECD, 2012).
Many countries have taken action. Starting in 2006, the UK which has one of the highest rates among European countries, introduced new nutritional guidelines to drive improvements in child health and reduce child obesity. New legislation was drawn up on the amount of junk food allowed to be sold in school canteens and there has been a rise in the popularity of traditional school dinners, which now meeting nutritional standards ensure children receive 1 balanced meal per day (Paton, 2010). Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has been a frontline campaigner for this change as he discusses in the aforementioned TED Talk.
The implications of this growing epidemic are alarming. In the context of the upcoming Olympic Games, governments’ worldwide should take the opportunity to acknowledge the gravity of child obesity which affects an estimated 10% of children globally (Bessesen, 2008). They should leverage off the Olympic super human role models and reignite efforts to address childhood obesity to give children a fair chance in life, right from the beginning.
Bessesen Dh 2008, Update on obesity, J.Clin. Endocrinol. Metab, 93 (6):2027-34
Cole T 2006, Early Causes of Childhood Obesity and Implications for Prevention, http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/14548/1/14548.pdf, [Accessed 10.07.2012]
CTV, 2008, Obese kids have arteries of 45-year-olds: study, http://www.ctvnews.ca/obese-kids-have-arteries-of-45-year-olds-study-1.341919, 11 November 2008, [Accessed 10.07.2012]
Flynn MA, McNeil DR, Maloff B, et al 2006, Reducing obesity and related chronic disease risk in children and youth: a synthesis of evidence with 'best practice' recommendations, Obes Rev 7 (Suppl 1): 7–66, (February 2006), [Accessed 10.07.2012]
Malkin E 2011, Mexico Puts Its Children on a Diet, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/world/americas/14mexico.html, NY Times 13 March 2011, [Accessed 10.07.2012]
National Obesity Observatory 2012, International Prevalence, http://www.noo.org.uk/NOO_about_obesity/child_obesity/international, [Accessed 10.07.2012]
OECD, 2012, Better Life Index, Health, http://www.oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/health/
Paton G, Jamie Oliver Inspires School Dinner Revival, The Telegraph, 08, 07, 2010, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/7879198/Jamie-Oliver-inspires-school-meal-revival.html