Childhood obesity rates expected to increase at least until 2025

In 2014, researchers of the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) programme gathered data from 1769 national surveys, reports and published studies around the world and reported that the rates of childhood obesity increased in most if not all countries between 1980 and 2013, a situation considered as alarming by the United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO). The report also revealed that no country had successfully achieved to appreciably reduce obesity rates over that period. Around the same time, member states of the WHO adopted a resolution that included a target to halt the rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes in children by 2025.

Although some countries have adopted national policies aiming at curbing the obesity epidemic, almost none of them have the robustness to significantly impact the current trends. Under this assumption, researchers from the World Obesity Federation in London (United Kingdom) estimated the likely number of children who will be either overweight or obese by 2025 based on the GBD report. Their results were published in the journal Pediatric Obesity and included data from 184 countries. These results suggest that up to 268 million children aged 5-17 years may be overweight by 2025, including 91 million obese children. Countries with the highest numbers of overweight children are China (48.5 million), India (17.3 million), the United States (16.7 million), Brazil (11.4 million) and Egypt (10.6 million). The authors also identified countries with lower absolute rates of childhood obesity but who have witnessed unprecedented progressions in childhood obesity rates between 2000 and 2013. Most of these countries are considered as being part of the developing economies including countries in South Asia, Latin America, Africa, small island states in the Caribbean and states of the former Soviet Union.

On top of documenting childhood obesity rates, the authors estimated the number of children who will likely be affected by the consequences attributable to excess adiposity such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension and hepatic steatosis (which is defined as abnormal lipid accumulation in the liver) in 2025. Their estimations suggest that up to 4 million children will have type 2 diabetes, 27 million will have hypertension and 38 million will have hepatic steatosis. The countries with the highest rates of obesity-associated comorbidities will unsurprisingly be comparable to the countries that show the highest childhood obesity rates (China, the United States, India, Indonesia, and Egypt).

According to the authors, there is good reason to assume that these estimates are likely accurate, as no convincing strategy to plan a healthy future for children has been set in place on national levels. Additionally, most of the above countries are undergoing a full-speed nutritional transition rendering possible (and in some case unavoidable) the daily consumption of ultra-processed foods and the overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages while at the same time the urban environment does not favour a physically active lifestyle. Although we can hope that these trends will eventually be reversed or at least stopped with rigorous national policies, we need to plan for the worst and have our medical systems ready to manage an increasing number of children who will suffer the consequences of physical inactivity and low-quality nutritional diets.