World Obesity Day: The fightback on childhood obesity

COVID-19 has created unforeseen problems – including undermining our efforts to defeat the scourge of childhood obesity. When we emerge from the grip of the virus, this must be a priority, writes Alex Agius Saliba.
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By Alex Agius Saliba

Alex Agius Saliba (MT, S&D) is the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the Digital Services Act Report

05 Mar 2021

Obesity is a global epidemic and, in many European countries, presents a severe public health problem affecting all population age groups, including children. In recent years, we have witnessed a worrying tendency of severe obesity and overweight. cases in children.

Children are among the most vulnerable groups; excess weight in children can negatively affect nearly every organ system and is often associated with many severe health consequences that can afect them throughout their lives. Children who are overweight or obese are more likely to become obese adults, and adult obesity is associated with an increased risk of morbidity. As one would therefore expect, prevention of childhood obesity is now high on the political agenda. 

“Covert marketing practices and adverts for fast food and sugary drinks have mushroomed on many digital platforms. Wherever our children go, advertising and marketing have followed”

Controlling childhood obesity has become an overriding public health concern in Europe. Both the European Commission and EU Member States are making strenuous efforts to address this serious health problem in a number of ways. That said, the Coronavirus pandemic may have significantly impeded those efforts, by setting in motion an unexpected barrier in the battle against childhood obesity. The approaches used to deal with the COVID-19 crisis have exacerbated all the risk factors associated with weight gain in children. 

The large-scale quarantine and home confinement have imposed new stressors on children. The closure of schools has led to increased out-of-school time, while lockdown measures have resulted in decreased organised physical activity and increased food insecurity, a more sedentary lifestyle, and too much screen time for many children. All this, further fuelled by the stress-induced indulgence of unhealthy, calorie-dense and sugary foods has created a new unpredictable layer of difficulty in this modern battle. This untrustworthy cocktail has made the fight against childhood obesity much, much more difficult. 

While there is the uncertainty over the true impact of COVID-19 related measures on the fight against childhood obesity, an increase in rates seems inevitable. What is more, the increased screen time during the pandemic has exposed children to the uncontrolled hidden digital advertising and marketing of high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods. New digital practices and business models are bombarding and targeting our children on social networking sites, games and on social media. A third of internet users are children, and on average they are online for approximately 15 hours a week via devices such as tablets, laptops and smartphones. 

The role of screen time and of targeted advertising of children is a well-known factor in driving obesity to new unpredictable highs. Covert marketing practices and adverts for fast food and sugary drinks have mushroomed on many digital platforms. Wherever our children go, advertising and marketing have followed, personalising and tailoring approaches to individual children. The lack of effective regulation and control over digital marketing and targeted advertising of children negatively affects measures to tackle childhood obesity.

“Lockdown measures have resulted in decreased organised physical activity and increased food insecurity, a more sedentary lifestyle, and too much screen time for many children”

With all this in mind, there is no doubt that curbing the viral spread of COVID-19 while protecting population health must remain a top priority. However, it is uncertain how long quarantine statuses will be maintained and how long the measures will last, not to mention their longer-term effect on children.

The new physical, nutritional, and psychosocial challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic may play a central role in setting a record high obesogenic environment in the coming years. Thus it is imperative to address the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic will affect childhood obesity and the measures needed to prevent and manage it at an individual, community, and population level. 

Within the constraints of social distancing or total stay-at-home measures, the COVID-19 crisis is the latest setback in the battle against childhood obesity. Overcoming this will require an innovative approach both at national and EU levels. To this end, it is vital that we start with public health, planning and social service responses to support healthy eating for, and the active living of, school-age children during this pandemic.

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