No, It's Not Just the U.S.: Childhood Obesity Is an 'Exploding Nightmare' in Developing Countries

U.N. report finds 41 million kids around the world are overweight or obese—and no one's doing enough to tackle the crisis.

Lu Zhihao, four, shows his empty rice bowl to his teacher during lunch time at a kindergarten in Foshan, Guangdong province. Lu put on weight dramatically after his appetite grew when he was three months old. (Photo: Joe Tan/Reuters)

Jan 26, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Imagine the entire state of California populated by no one except tens of millions of overweight or obese preschoolers. That will give you a sense of the scale of the worldwide crisis of childhood obesity.

It is, indeed, global. An alarming report released Monday by the U.N. World Health Organization finds that 41 million children around the globe under the age of five were either overweight or obese in 2014—that’s 2 million more than the population of the Golden State, so you can throw a couple of San Diegos into that imagined scenario as well.

Following years of childhood obesity being framed as a distinctly, uniquely American problem, the focus on kids under the age of five, as well as the worldwide scope of the crisis, would both seem important here.

Unlike a host of communicable diseases and even diseases like cancer, obesity has long been something of an outlier when it comes to public health debates, too often seen as a first-world problem, the product of poor lifestyle choices and a contemptible lack of self-control.

But in its report, the WHO’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity deftly dispels those myths. Noting that nearly half the world’s overweight or obese children under the age of five live in Africa, while a quarter live in Asia, the report states that “in absolute numbers there are more children who are overweight and obese in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income countries.” In a news conference, commission cochair Peter Gluckman called childhood obesity “an exploding nightmare in the developing world.”

As for obesity being simply a matter of personal responsibility, a function of a rational consumer’s exercise of his or her fundamental God-given liberty to crack open another can of Coke to wash down that side of cheese fries instead of getting outside and going for a walk, well, tell that to a dangerously overweight four-year-old. “What’s the big message?” Gluckman told reporters. “It’s not the kid’s fault.”

In short, an increasing number of the world’s children are being born into what the report calls an “obesogenic environment”—or more accurately, conceived in an environment that is conducive to developing obesity, since evidence suggests some risk factors for becoming overweight or obese, such as poor maternal nutrition, can be tied to prenatal health.

While the report cites an overall decline in physical activity among the world’s children as an important factor in the crisis—81 percent of adolescents don’t get the WHO’s recommended daily amount of physical activity—it’s clear the authors see the rising ubiquity of high-calorie, low-nutrient junk food and sugar-sweetened beverages as the primary culprit. Couple that with inadequate efforts to effectively educate parents and kids about making healthier eating choices, particularly in the face of a relentless barrage of junk food advertising, and you have a serious global public health crisis.

Amid the commission's slew of policy recommendations are some that are bound to raise the ire of the processed food industry, including further reducing kids' exposure to junk food marketing and—close to the top of the list—for governments to start taxing soda and other sugary drinks.

“Obesity prevention and treatment requires a whole-of-government approach,” the report states. Nevertheless, as the statistics show, “progress in tackling childhood obesity has been slow and inconsistent.”