Childhood obesity is set to increase, with incidence rates growing at the fastest rates in Asia Pacific countries, particularly China, while Europe and the US will retain the highest overall ratios. Excessive consumption of energy-dense food and drinks is partly to blame, however, sedentary lifestyles, particularly a dependence on cars and public transport, are also part of the problem.
Datamonitor forecasts that over 35% of European kids aged five to 13 will be overweight or obese by 2012. In the US, this figure will surpass 40%, while Asia Pacific countries, particularly China, are seeing the fastest increase in the percentage of overweight or obese kids. In the UK, childhood obesity has trebled since the 1980s, and Datamonitor estimates that in 2007 33% of five to 13 year olds were overweight or obese, which equates to 2.1 million children. This number is expected to rise to 2.3 million by 2012.
In addition to recorded statistics, European adult consumers have also noticed the perceived spread of the problem. According to a Eurobarometer survey, some 85% of consumers in the UK feel that there are more overweight children now than five years previously. In France, Sweden and Germany, this proportion exceeds 90%.
Food consumption is clearly a factor, with children in Europe consuming more than the population average in many energy-dense, indulgence food and drink categories. European kids consume 17% more than the population average in confectionery (9.8% UK), 23% in savory snacks (20.4% UK), almost 26% in ice cream (27.5% UK), and 33% in fizzy drinks (31.4% UK). Furthermore, a reliance on packaged food has led to many children accessing a diet that is geared towards convenience rather than balanced nutrition. In the western world, children are now suffering because their diet is not balanced and is too rich in calories.
Much of the problem of childhood obesity is that the conditions for its prevalence are so rife, making a healthy weight more difficult to maintain. Modern lifestyles can encourage bad eating and exercise habits, which makes keeping slim a difficult goal to achieve. In countries where many retail developments and leisure venues are increasingly located on the periphery of urban centers, the importance of cars is likely to continue unchallenged, unless either regulation or the cost of ownership makes them less affordable.
Furthermore, increasing numbers of children are traveling to school by car or public transport, and this may become even more problematic going forward, if more children travel greater distances to access the best-ranked schools, in a parallel of adults commuting to work over greater distances. As the distance between home and school grows, so will the dependence on cars and public transport, meaning that fewer children regularly benefit from the moderate exercise of walking, limiting the amount of ‘unnoticed’ exercise that they take.