Fighting childhood obesity should start even before pregnancy

Established in 1981, World Food Day is celebrated on October 16, the date of foundation of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an agency of the United Nations (UN). Its creation was linked to the need to alert and raise awareness in the world to the various problems related to food, namely the eradication of hunger and the fight against food waste, but it also involves the growing concerns with the sustainability of food systems and with the rise of obesity in the world. According to UN data, while 820 million people do not have access to enough food, more than 2 billion human beings are overweight and obese.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that global obesity has tripled since 1975 and, according to data from 2016 — there is no current data available — about 650 million adults were obese, that is, almost 13% of the older adults. 18 years old around the world.

It is true that the vast majority of the world’s population lives in countries where the problems associated with being overweight kill more than the lack of food. However, childhood obesity is no less worrying: in 2020, about 39 million children under 5 years of age were overweight and more than 340 million between 5 and 19 years of age were overweight and obese (data from 2016). Obesity is therefore a serious public health problem, but the good news is that it is preventable. This is the great challenge of the 21st century and must be considered a priority by governments, which have an important role in creating an environment favorable to the adoption of best practices. Examples such as Sintra Grows Healthy (see box on the side), which raises awareness among children and families about the importance of healthy eating and a change in habits, may be replicated across the country, bringing results to public health in the coming decades.

According to data from the Portuguese Society for the Study of Obesity (SPEO), Portugal has a rate of child overweight of 29.6%, with 12% of these situations already constituting obesity. For its part, the Portuguese Association against Childhood Obesity (APCOI) estimates that there was still an average weight gain of 10% in children during confinement. Specific data are not yet available, but on the association’s website it can be read that, according to the calculations carried out, if each child per day has ingested an average of about 200-300 extra calories without having increased in the same proportion. energy expenditure through physical activity means that in the last two months of confinement, 12 thousand to 18 thousand more kilocalories will have been accumulated, which corresponds to an increase in weight of at least two kilograms.

The report Health at a Glance, of 2019, carried out by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) places Portugal in ninth position in the ranking childhood obesity, with a prevalence of 37.1% in children between 5 and 9 years. It is ranking is led by the United States, with an incidence of 43% in this age group. Also with regard to adults and adolescents over 15 years of age, Portugal is in a bad position: 67.6% of the Portuguese population from this age onwards is overweight, which indicates an ever-increasing approximation to the degree of obesity. It is worth clarifying, in a simplistic way, that the extra weight is revealed by calculating the relationship between weight, height and gender, resulting in the body mass index (BMI), and that above 25% is considered overweight, 30% to 40% obesity and above that morbid obesity.

Action on obesity should start before pregnancy

Carla Rêgo, pediatrician at the Center for Children and Adolescents of Hospital CUF Porto, member of the Scientific Council of the Platform against Obesity of the Directorate-General for Health and also vice president of SPEO, was responsible for creating and implementing the first consultation of the country of pediatric obesity, in 1998, then at the Pediatrics Service of Hospital de São João. because almost 98% of obesity is caused by behavioral factors”, explains this specialist. This gave rise to the first multidisciplinary consultation for childhood obesity, which involved a pediatrician, nutritionist and psychologist.