Facts and figures on childhood obesity
The number of overweight or obese infants and young children (aged 0 to 5 years) increased from 32 million globally in 1990 to 41 million in 2016. In the WHO African Region alone the number of overweight or obese children increased from 4 to 9 million over the same period.
The vast majority of overweight or obese children live in developing countries, where the rate of increase has been more than 30% higher than that of developed countries.
If current trends continue the number of overweight or obese infants and young children globally will increase to 70 million by 2025.
Without intervention, obese infants and young children will likely continue to be obese during childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Obesity in childhood is associated with a wide range of serious health complications and an increased risk of premature onset of illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease.
Exclusive breastfeeding from birth to 6 months of age is an important way to help prevent infants from becoming overweight or obese.
Consequences of obesity in childhood
Obese children are more likely to develop a variety of health problems as adults. These include:
- cardiovascular disease
- insulin resistance (often an early sign of impending diabetes)
- musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis - a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints)
- some cancers (endometrial, breast and colon)
Contributors to obesity in infants and children
Every aspect of the environment in which children are conceived, born and raised can contribute to their risk of becoming overweight or obese. During pregnancy, gestational diabetes (a form of diabetes occurring during pregnancy) may result in increased birth weight and risk of obesity later in life.
Choosing healthy foods for infants and young children is critical because food preferences are established in early life. Feeding infants energy-dense, high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods is a key contributor to childhood obesity.
Lack of information about sound approaches to nutrition and poor availability and affordability of healthy foods contribute to the problem. The aggressive marketing of energy-dense foods and beverages to children and families further exacerbate it. In some societies, longstanding cultural norms (such as the widespread belief that a fat baby is a healthy baby) may encourage families to over-feed their children.
The increasingly urbanized and digitalized world offers fewer opportunities for physical activity through healthy play. Being overweight or obese further reduces children’s opportunities to participate in group physical activities. They then become even less physically active, which makes them likely to become more overweight over time.
Prevention of childhood obesity
Overweight and obesity are largely preventable. Supportive policies, environments, schools and communities are fundamental in shaping parents’ and children’s choices, making the healthier choice of foods and regular physical activity the easiest choice (accessible, available and affordable), and therefore preventing obesity.
For infants and young children, WHO recommends:
- early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour of birth;
- exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life; and
- the introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary (solid) foods at 6 months together with continued breastfeeding up to two years of age or beyond.
Complementary foods should be rich in nutrients and given in adequate amounts. At six months, caregivers should introduce foods in small amounts and gradually increase the quantity as the child gets older. Young children should receive a variety of foods including meat, poultry, fish or eggs as often as possible. Foods for the baby can be specially prepared or modified from family meals. Complementary foods high in fats, sugar and salt should be avoided.
School-aged children and adolescents should:
- limit energy intake from total fats and sugars;
- increase consumption of fruit and vegetables, as well as legumes, whole grains and nuts;
- engage in regular physical activity (60 minutes a day).
The food industry can play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity by:
- reducing the fat, sugar and salt content of complementary foods and other processed foods;
- ensuring that healthy and nutritious choices are available and affordable to all consumers;
- practicing responsible marketing especially those aimed at children and teenagers.
Adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2004, the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health calls for action at global, regional and local levels to improve diets and increase physical activity.
The Political Declaration of the High Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases of September 2011 recognizes the critical importance of reducing the level of exposure of individuals and populations to unhealthy diet and physical inactivity. The Political Declaration commits to advance the implementation of the WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, including, where appropriate, the introduction of policies and actions aimed at promoting healthy diets and increasing physical activity.
At the 2012 World Health Assembly, countries agreed to work towards halting any further increases in the proportion of overweight children. This is one of the six global nutrition targets aimed at improving maternal, infant and young child nutrition by 2025.
The World Health Assembly in 2014 adopted the "Global Action Plan for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases 2013-2020" which aims to achieve the commitments of the UN Political Declaration on NCDs. The action plan will contribute to progress on 9 global NCD targets to be attained in 2025, including halting of the global obesity rates in school-aged children, adolescents and adults.