Being chronically overweight and obesity are among the leading causes of death and disability in Europe. Estimates suggest they cause more than 1.2 million deaths annually, which corresponds to more than 13 per cent of total mortality in the region.
Increased cancer risk
Obesity also increases the risk for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), including 13 different types of cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and type 2 diabetes. It is likely to be directly responsible for at least 200,000 new cancer cases annually across the region, and this figure is set to rise further in the coming years.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has also disproportionately affected overweight people and those living with obesity.
WHO said patients with obesity are more likely to experience complications and death from the virus. Many have also experienced disruptions in accessing obesity management services due to the crisis.
Meanwhile, “unfavourable shifts” in food consumption and physical activity patterns during the pandemic will have effects on health in the years ahead and will require significant effort to reverse.
Changing the trajectory
Obesity knows no borders, said Dr. Hans Kluge, the WHO Regional Director, adding that although European countries are diverse, each 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,” he said.
The report lays out a series of interventions and policy options for Governments to tackle obesity, emphasizing the need to build back better after the pandemic.
WHO explained that the causes of obesity “are much more complex than the mere combination of unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.”
Latest evidence presented in the report highlights how vulnerability to unhealthy body weight in early life can affect a person’s tendency to develop obesity.
Environmental factors are also driving the rise in obesity in Europe, including digital marketing of unhealthy food to children, and the proliferation of sedentary online gaming, according to the report, which also examines how digital platforms might be used to promote health and well-being.
“Obesity is influenced by the environment, so it is important to look at this problem from the perspective of every stage of life. For example, the life of children and adolescents is impacted by digital environments, including marketing of unhealthy food and drinks,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, which produced the report.
Address ‘structural drivers’
The policy recommendations in the report include implementing fiscal interventions such as greater taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages or subsidies for healthier foods, restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, and improving access to obesity and overweight management services in primary healthcare.
Efforts to improve diet and physical activity “across the life course” are also suggested, including preconception and pregnancy care, promotion of breastfeeding and school-based interventions, as well as creating environments that improve access to healthy food and physical activity.
WHO said because obesity is complex, no single intervention can halt the rise of the growing epidemic, and any national policies must have high-level political commitment. They should also be comprehensive and target 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,” the agency said.