Mediterranean Countries Have Europe's Highest Child-Obesity Rates

By Anne Harding

August 07, 2019

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Overweight and obesity prevalence is "very high" among children across Europe, according to a new systematic review and meta-analysis.

"Childhood obesity is one of the most serious public health problems of the twenty-first century," Dr. Miriam Garrido-Miguel of the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha in Cuenca, Spain, the study's first author, told Reuters Health by email. "The problem is worldwide and is also affecting many low- and middle-income countries. The prevalence has increased at an alarming rate."

Previous studies of trends in excess weight among European children have had mixed results, Dr. Garrido-Miguel and her colleagues note in JAMA Pediatrics, online August 5. They analyzed 103 studies including more than 477,000 children aged 2 to 13 years from 29 countries.

Overall prevalence of overweight and obesity increased from 20.6% in 1999-2006 to 21.3% in 2011-2016. Belgium and the Netherlands had the least overweight and obesity from 1999 to 2006, at 9% and 10.2%, respectively, while excess weight was most common among children in Greece (40.8%) and Spain (31.9%).

For 2011-2016, Poland and Switzerland had the least overweight and obesity (12.3% and 14.4%, respectively), and rates were highest in Greece (36.8%) and Italy (35.2%).

From 1999-2006, the Atlantic region of Europe had the lowest obesity prevalence (12.8%) and the Iberian region had the highest (31%). Excess weight prevalence for 2011-2016 was lowest in the Central region (13.2%) and highest in the Mediterranean region (30.4%).

Overweight and obesity were much more common in southern Europe versus northern Europe.

Trends in excess weight from 1999 to 2016 were negatively associated with gross national income (GNI) per capita in several countries for children aged 7 to 13, but not for younger children.

Several southern European countries showed increases in overweight and obesity during the financial crisis of 2007-2010, Dr. Garrido-Miguel noted.

"During financial crises it has been shown that children eat worse - families tend to buy less fresh and more ultraprocessed products - and do less extracurricular activities and exercise, resulting in weight gain in children," the researcher said. "It is also found that in those countries with higher GNI there is less overweight or obesity, which confirms that there are numerous economic and lifestyle factors that are behind these figures, in addition to genetic factors."

She added, "Although the epidemic of childhood obesity seems to be stabilizing in Europe, the measures to promote physical activity and adherence to the Mediterranean diet that most governments have in place cannot relax, and in Mediterranean countries they must be implemented in urgent interventions to control this serious public health problem that threatens the well-being of the next generations of adults and the elderly."


JAMA Pediatr 2019.