Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health

What are the causes?

Reasons for children and adolescents to become obese

PAHO/WHO - Sonia Mey

The fundamental cause of childhood overweight and obesity is an energy imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended.

Global increases in childhood overweight and obesity are attributable to a number of factors including:

  • A global shift in diet towards increased intake of energy-dense foods that are high in fat and sugars but low in vitamins, minerals and other healthy micronutrients;
  • A trend towards decreased physical activity levels due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of recreation time, changing modes of transportation, and increasing urbanization.

Societal reasons for the childhood obesity epidemic

WHO recognizes that the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity results from changes in society. Childhood obesity is mainly associated with unhealthy eating and low levels of physical activity, but the problem is linked not only to children's behaviour but also, increasingly, to social and economic development and policies in the areas of agriculture, transport, urban planning, the environment, food processing, distribution and marketing, as well as education.

The problem is societal and therefore it demands a population-based multisectoral, multi-disciplinary, and culturally relevant approach.

Unlike most adults, children and adolescents cannot choose the environment in which they live or the food they eat. They also have a limited ability to understand the long-term consequences of their behaviour. They therefore require special attention when fighting the obesity epidemic.

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