WHO calls for action on sugary products

Food companies are being targeted by the World Health Organisation in a major drive to tackle childhood obesity around the world.

A new WHO report, Ending Childhood Obesity, urges governments to act to limit the marketing of unhealthy high-calorie and sugar-laden food products and drinks aimed at children.

It also recommends sugary drink taxes such as the one due to be introduced in Ireland next April, clear front-of-package labelling with food contents, and banning the provision of unhealthy food, snacks and drinks in schools.

The raft of guidelines call for disadvantaged communities to be given better access to healthy foods and for measures to ensure that physical activity is part of the “daily routine and curriculum” in schools and other childcare facilities.

Professor Fiona Bull, a member of the WHO working group that spent two years compiling the report, launched ahead of World Obesity Day said: “We need to turn our concern into action — more action and more widespread action.

“We are surrounded by environments which market unhealthy, high fat, high sugar, high-calorie food. That’s what’s on the TV, that’s what’s promoted at bus stops, and that’s what children see all day, every day.

"The promotion and the price and the specials, the two-for-ones, the super-sizing — these are the problems that drive overweight and obesity, over-consumption.”

Prof Bull was speaking at a briefing in London to launch the WHO report as well as a major study highlighting soaring rates of childhood and adolescent obesity around the world.

The research, published in The Lancet medical journal, pulled together data from 31.5 million children and teenagers aged five to 19 who took part in more than 2,000 studies.

It found that globally, the estimated number of obese children and teenagers had risen tenfold in the past four decades.

Between 1975 and 2016 the number of obese boys in the world went up from six million to 74 million, while a similar trend for girls showed an increase from five to 50 million.

While obesity rates among young people in Europe and the US were said to have plateaued, the authors said it was still a serious problem in these regions.

The study authors used a WHO statistical method that looks at levels of deviation from a ‘normal’ average.

Prof Bull said the WHO was talking to food manufacturers to find ways to reformulate products to reduce their sugar, fat and calories.

The impending sugary drink tax, due to come into force in Ireland and the UK next April, had already led to the food companies making changes, she said.

“This tells us something — industry can change,” Prof Bull added.

Professor Majid Ezzati, one of study authors from Imperial College London, said: “While there have been some initiatives led by governments, communities or schools to increase awareness about childhood and adolescent obesity, most high-income countries have been reluctant to use taxes and industry regulations to change eating and drinking behaviours to tackle child obesity.

“Most importantly, very few policies and programmes attempt to make healthy foods such as whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables affordable to poor families.”


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