Poorer teenagers face higher risks of obesity

A  new WHO/Europe report finds alarming disparities in diet, exercise, and weight among adolescents from different socio-economic backgrounds.

The new report reveals alarming disparities in the health of young people across the region, with those from less affluent families disproportionately affected. 

The report, based on data from 44 countries, highlights unhealthy eating habits, rising rates of overweight and obesity, and low levels of physical activity among young people, all of which are significant risk factors for a range of non-communicable diseases, including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.

Unhealthy eating habits on the rise

The report paints a concerning picture of adolescents’ dietary habits, focusing on the decline in healthy eating behaviours and the rise of unhealthy choices. Fewer than two in five adolescents (38%) eat fruit or vegetables daily, with these figures declining with age. Worryingly, more than half of adolescents report eating neither fruit nor vegetables daily.

Conversely, sweets and sugary drinks remain high, with one in four adolescents (25%) reporting daily consumption of sweets or chocolate. This rate is higher among girls (28%) than boys (23%) and has increased since 2018, particularly among girls. 

The report also reveals a concerning link between socio-economic status and unhealthy dietary habits, with adolescents from lower-income families more likely to consume sugary drinks (18% vs. 15%) and less likely to eat fruits (32% vs. 46%) and vegetables (32% vs. 54%) daily. 

Dr Martin Weber, Team Lead for Quality of Care and Programme Manager of Child and Adolescent Health at WHO/Europe, said, “The affordability and accessibility of healthy food options are often limited for families with lower incomes, leading to a higher reliance on processed and sugary foods, which can have detrimental effects on adolescent health.”

Junk food. Photo by Christopher Williams on Unsplash
The report reveals a concerning link between socio-economic status and unhealthy dietary habits. Photo by Christopher Williams on Unsplash

Overweight and obesity a growing concern

Rates of overweight and obesity are higher among boys (27%) than girls (17%). Alarmingly, adolescents from less affluent families are more likely to be overweight or obese (27% compared with 18% of their wealthier peers). This disparity highlights the urgent need to address the underlying socio-economic factors contributing to these trends. 

Physical inactivity: a cause for concern

WHO recommends that young people get at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity daily. The report shows that only 25% of boys and 15% of girls achieve this, with participation declining with age, particularly among girls.

Once again, socio-economic inequalities are evident, with adolescents from more affluent families reporting higher levels of physical activity.

This suggests that factors such as access to safe spaces for physical activity and participation in organised sports may be influenced by family income.

Teenage skateboarders in Iceland. Photo: Yadid Levy/norden.org

Addressing the crisis

The WHO Regional Office for Europe calls for urgent action to address these concerning trends. The report recommends comprehensive strategies that focus on:

  • Regulating food marketing: Implementing stricter regulations on marketing unhealthy foods and drinks to children and adolescents.
  • Promoting healthy eating: Improving access to affordable, nutritious food, particularly for disadvantaged families, and implementing policies to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods and beverages.
  • Increasing physical activity: Creating safe and accessible environments for physical activity and promoting initiatives encouraging adolescents to exercise regularly.
  • Targeted interventions: Developing tailored interventions to support healthier behaviours among adolescents, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. 
  • Address social inequalities: Policies should aim to reduce socio-economic disparities, ensuring all young people have the opportunity to lead healthy lives.

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