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Experts condemn slow progress on cutting obesity

Clinicians are poorly prepared to treat obesity, say studies

Adrian O'Dowd

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Experts have criticised global progress towards tackling obesity as “unacceptably slow” with only a quarter of countries implementing a healthy eating policy by 2010, according to a new six-part series on obesity, published today in The Lancet.

There had been a general global failure to tackle the obesity epidemic over the past decade so new ways of thinking were vital, said the various authors of the series of papers.

In less than a generation, rates of child obesity have risen dramatically worldwide and in the USA, for example, children weigh on average 5kg more than they did 30 years ago, and one in three children is now overweight or obese.

Although child obesity rates have started to level off in some cities and countries, no country to date has experienced declining rates of obesity across its population, says The Lancet.

In England alone, 67% of men and 58% of women are now overweight or obese.

In low and middle-income countries, stunting still affected more than a fifth of children under 5 years of age, said one of the papers, but obesity was rapidly rising, creating a double nutritional burden that could affect the same population and the same individual.

The authors said that the food industry had a special interest in targeting children with repeated exposure to highly processed foods and sweetened drinks during infancy building taste preferences, brand loyalty, and high profits.

However, few countries have taken any regulatory steps to protect children from the negative health effects of obesity or implemented widely-recommended healthy food policies.

The majority of countries had relied solely on voluntary moves by the food industry, with no evidence of their effectiveness.

One of the papers’ authors Dr Christina Roberto, from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, USA, said: “Our understanding of obesity must be completely reframed if we are to halt and reverse the global obesity epidemic.

“On one hand, we need to acknowledge that individuals bear some responsibility for their health, and on the other hand recognise that today’s food environments exploit people’s biological, psychological, and social and economic vulnerabilities, making it easier for them to eat unhealthy foods.

“It’s time to realise that this vicious cycle of supply and demand for unhealthy foods can be broken with ‘smart food policies’ by governments alongside joint efforts from industry and civil society to create healthier food systems.”

The series authors call for food policies that would transform the nature of the food and consumer environment including the availability, price, and nutrition standards of food products, and the marketing practices that influence food choices and preferences.

Health professionals were poorly prepared to treat obesity, said one of the papers, which called for more must be done to improve healthcare training, particularly to address biases about patients with obesity, and to improve care-delivery strategies.

Royal College of Physicians academic vice president and public health lead, Professor John Wass, said: “This is a rapidly rising trend that no country in the world has yet tackled successfully.

“As The Lancet highlights, governments have failed to take robust action that works – with an over reliance on voluntary schemes by the food industry. In the UK, it is clear that we need urgent, coordinated action across all government departments if we are to begin to reverse this trend.”

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