9 February 2017 09:14

Governments must act to combat childhood obesity, warn experts following major European Commission-funded study.

European governments must act to help families improve their children’s health and tackle the obesity epidemic.

That is the advice of I.Family researchers who, today (Thursday 9 February), revealed the findings of a major international study into the diets and lifestyles of European children.

Dr Garrath Williams, of Lancaster University, was one of 17 lead partners in the I.Family Study – a 5-year international scientific study across 12 different countries – which examined the health, diets, physical fitness, local environments and peer and family influences of more than 16,000 children in eight European countries (Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Spain and Sweden).

At the Study’s final conference in Brussels today, I.Family researchers revealed their key findings to policy-makers, healthcare and children’s health professionals, and health NGOs from all over Europe, aiming to inform policy and practice at local, national and European level. The main topics included dietary patterns, the importance of sleep, food choices, the role of friends, local environments, family influence, metabolic health, genetic factors and community interventions.

The key findings of the I.Family Study include:

  • Rates of overweight/obesity vary widely between European regions – from around 40% of children aged between two and ten in southern Italy to less than 10% in Belgium.
  • Socio-economic status had a major effect on rates of overweight and obesity across Europe. 
  • As children grew up over the course of the study, researchers looked at how many children became overweight or obese. Over a five year period, almost twice as many children from medium or low socio-economic status families became overweight/obese, compared with higher SES families.
  • Girls are more likely to be overweight/obese compared with boys.
  • Less than a third of children meet physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes exercise per day.
  • Children exposed to commercial TV are more likely to consume sweetened drinks, regardless of their parents’ norms or the daily duration of TV-viewing.
  • Watching TV during meals, having a TV in the children’s bedroom and watching TV for more than 1 hour per day are all associated with being overweight/obese.
  • Family members are similar to each other in their weight status and body composition, risk factors for disease and what they eat. Children tend to be more like their mothers than fathers.
  • The body weights of children and teenagers are related to those of their peers. Teenagers are particularly likely to eat more unhealthy foods if their friends do and are more likely to be active if their friends are.

Dr Garrath Williams explained: “Our findings emphasise how urban environments and commercial factors discourage healthy lifestyles in European children. Even at quite young ages, we already see signs that children from lower socio-economic groups are likely to have worse future health. Marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children remains a major problem. Parents are fighting an up-hill battle and deserve better support from policy-makers.”

The event was opened by Daciana Octavia Sârbu MEP vice-chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) – with guest speakers and chairs including Artur Furtado, Deputy Head of Unit at the Health Determinants & Inequality Unit,DG Sante, European Commission, and Dr Charmaine Gauci, Superintendent of Public Health at the Ministry for Health in Malta. Dr Gauci is also Coordinator of the Maltese Presidency thematic lead on childhood obesity – one of two key health priorities chosen by the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the EU.

For further details about the Study’s findings and to see the full conference programme please visit the I.Family website at www.ifamilystudy.eu