The World Health Organization says the number of children under the age of five who are overweight or obese is now 41 million. That's 6.1 percent of all infants and toddlers worldwide, a percentage that is rapidly growing even compared to the 90s. Back then, 31 million children in this age group—or just 4.5 percent—were overweight or obese.
A report just issued by the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity, published at the behest of the WHO, showed that rates doubled in lower middle-income countries—from 7.5 million to 15.5 million—over the 10-year period. According to the report, "In absolute numbers more overweight and obese children live in low- and middle-income countries than high-income countries." In high-income countries, like the US, "the risks of childhood obesity are greatest in lower socioeconomic groups."
Asia seems to have the worst problem—almost half of all the world's overweight and obese children under five live there. Another 25 percent live in Africa.
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The Commission's expert panel said that more political commitment is needed to address the problem and that nations have a "moral responsibility" to do so. Peter Gluckman, a co-chair of the Commission, called the problem "an exploding nightmare," especially in the developing world.
How did this happen? Gluckman says, "You can't blame a two-year-old child for being fat and lazy and eating too much." In fact, according to the Commission, the problem pre-dates the lives of the children implicated. They say that when a woman who is obese or has diabetes gets pregnant, the child is much more likely to have metabolic disease and quickly become obese. In addition, the authors say, "The behavioral and biological responses of a child to the obesogenic environment can be shaped by processes even before birth, placing an even greater number of children on the pathway to becoming obese when faced with an unhealthy diet and low physical activity."
So what in the world can we do to stop this ever-ballooning toddler epidemic? The Commission suggests a number of remedies. One is a tax on sugar-filled drinks, like the tax that has recently been put in place in Mexico. They also believe a standard, global nutrition labeling system—one that is simple and understandable—would help. Adequate sleep and exercise guidelines for children under five are also needed, they say.
According to Gluckman, "The WHO needs to work with governments to implement a wide range of measures that address the environmental causes of obesity and overweight, and help to give children the healthy start to life they deserve."
After all, the Commission points out, the way things are going, obesity may very well "negate many of the health benefits that have contributed to increased life expectancy." That's because "Childhood obesity is a strong predictor of adult obesity, which has well-known health and economic consequences, both for individuals and for society as a whole."
Chubby toddlers? Not so cute. They're a worldwide problem.