More and more children in Switzerland are piling on the kilos, according to a new study.
The number of overweight children has tripled in the past 20 years, while the number classed as clinically obese has increased sixfold.
The study, carried out by the human nutrition department of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology, weighed more than 2,000 Swiss children aged between six and 12 .
It found that around 20 per cent were overweight and four per cent were obese.
There was little difference between boys and girls: around 18 per cent of boys were overweight, while the figure rose slightly with girls to 20 per cent.
Researchers said there were no regional variations or disparities between children living in rural and urban areas.
The study measured obesity using the Body Mass Index, a scale which divides a person’s weight in kilograms by his or her height.
Anyone with a BMI of between 26 and 30 is considered overweight, while over 30 is regarded as obese.
Some experts say the scale, which is normally used for adults, should be treated with caution when used to measure children.
But Dr Michael Cauderey, a specialist in paediatric cardiology at the Samaritain Hospital in Vevey, believes that the figure of four per cent for child obesity may be an underestimate.
“Actually we would consider a child with a BMI of over 24 to be obese,” Cauderey told swissinfo. “A child with an index of over 30 is quite simply enormous!”
However Cauderey believes the rate of 20 per cent for overweight children is accurate. “It’s the same all over Europe, “ he said. “Switzerland is no exception.”
Obesity is linked to serious health problems, such as diabetes, heart disease, and respiratory illness. In addition, being overweight can cause psychological problems such as lack of self-worth.
Only last month the World Health Organization warned of a growing global problem of obesity and urged countries to develop a strategy to tackle it.
“This study confirms what the World Health Organization has been saying for several years now,” said David Porter, spokesman for the WHO.
“We must address the issue of healthy diet and exercise, and by exercise we don’t just mean more sport, we mean creating safe areas where children can play, and safe routes so they can walk to school.”
Porter added that the increasing time which children spend watching television or playing computer games was a contributory factor. “The change [in Swiss children] must be due to a more sedentary lifestyle.”
No more cheese and chocolate
But both the researchers involved in the study and the WHO stress that changes in diet are essential to combat obesity.
The study calls for education on healthy diet in schools, something which is also called for in the WHO’s global strategy on diet, physical activity and health.
“Children are increasingly exposed to foods with a high fat, sugar and salt content,” Porter told swissinfo. “It’s so much easier to absorb large numbers of calories without really knowing it.”
The strategy is due to be adopted by the World Health Assembly when it meets in May, but there may be some resistance from the food industry.
Although the strategy is non-binding, it calls for recommended daily levels of sugar and fat consumption which are significantly below current averages.
Some WHO member countries with large fast food industries, most notably the United States, have already questioned the recommended levels, saying the health benefits of reducing sugar and fat intake by this amount are not proven.
swissinfo, Imogen Foulkes
The study weighed 1,235 girls and 1,196 boys aged 6-12 from across Switzerland.
Around 20% of them were overweight – three times as many as 20 years ago.
At least 4% were clinically obese.
These figures are reflected all over Europe, where children eat more high fat high sugar foods.
They also spend more time watching television or playing the computer instead of taking exercise.
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