A recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Imperial College London revealed that a shocking 124 million children and teens were obese in 2016. This marked a tenfold increase compared to the figure reported in 1975, more than 40 years ago, which was at 11 million. To break it down further, 5.6% of girls and 7.8% of boys were found to be obese in last year. This means that one in five children worldwide is either obese or overweight. If the current trend continues, there will be more obese children and youths by 2022 compared to those who are underweight, according to the WHO.

Body Mass Index

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a common, inexpensive way used to estimate body fat based on an individual’s height and weight. A BMI below 18.5 means that an individual is underweight. To be classified as having a healthy weight, one’s BMI should lie between 18.5 to 24.9. Individuals with a BMI above 25 are considered overweight whereas individuals with a BMI exceeding 30 are considered obese.

The weight status of children as well as adolescents can also be measured using BMI. However, unlike the BMI for adults, BMI for growing children differ according to their respective age and gender. In order for BMI to be applicable to children and adolescents, BMI-for-age reference standards must be used by medical professionals.

"While average BMI among children and adolescents has recently plateaued in Europe and North America, this is not an excuse for complacency as more than one in five young people in the US and one in 10 in the UK are obese," said James Bentham, a statistician at the University of Kent.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most common method to indicate if a person is underweight, overweight or obese.
Body Mass Index (BMI) is the most common method to indicate if a person is underweight, overweight or obese.

The ‘double burden of malnutrition’

Although obesity has long been thought as a first world problem, the latest study published by The Lancet medical journal shows that this no longer holds true. In fact, obesity rates among child and adolescent obesity have been found to be increasing at alarming rates especially in East, South and Southeast Asia.

Majid Ezzati, the head researcher of the study, revealed that "over the past four decades, obesity rates in children and adolescents have soared globally, and continue to do so in low and middle-income countries."

According to the former national president of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics, H.P. Sachdev, 50% of all overweight and obese children lived in Asia whereas 25% lived in Africa. “Paradoxically, overweight and obesity is found in populations where under-nutrition remains common – the term ‘double burden of malnutrition’ is sometimes used to describe these settings,” he said.

The WHO defines the ‘double burden of malnutrition’ as “the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight and obesity, or diet-related noncommunicable diseases, within individuals, households and populations, and across the life course.” Ironically, the association of obesity and malnutrition is becoming increasingly common among poor families and communities nowadays due to the availability of cheap, energy-packed foods of little nutritional value.

The double-burden of malnutrition. Source: WHO

The healthy way forward: Challenges and solutions

One of the main challenges in tackling this issue lies in identifying obesity among young children. This is because parents often perceive chubby children as healthy children, doctors report. Anjana Hulse, a paediatric endocrinologist in Apollo Hospitals, further adds that parents of obese children only feel obligated to seek medical advice for their kids when health complications arise.

"If you want to prevent obesity you have to start early," says Dr Francesco Branca, director of nutrition for health and development. Therefore, school-based interventions are important to ensure that healthy food is readily available. In Australia, for example, nutrition policies are being implemented in schools to curb obesity among children and teenagers. Tuckshops in New South Wales have been banned from selling sugary drinks to schoolchildren.

In addition, several guidelines including the assessment of eating habits, dieting and counselling have been introduced by the WHO to manage childhood obesity. Temo Waqanivalu, a programme officer for population-based prevention of noncommunicable diseases at the WHO, expressed hopes that countries would be able to recognise the magnitude of the problem and take proactive steps to counter it. Introducing sugar taxes, protecting children against harmful food marketing and implementing policies to improve physical activity in schools are some of the proven methods to manage obesity among children, he explained. MIMS

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