Wellness as a Policy – a European Approach to Obesity Prevention
By: Sara Suchy
Let no American think for a moment that we are the only nation with a weight problem. While the U.S. continues to grapple with a staggering and seemingly constant rise in obesity among adults and children over the last 30 or so years, Europe faces similar problems keeping their collective weight down, according to John Dalli, the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy for the European Commission. I had the opportunity to speak with Commissioner Dalli while he was in Washington D.C. last week on the European Commission’s efforts to address the spike in obesity across Europe and the rest of the world.
Research cited by the World Health Organization finds that a little over half (50.1) of the adult population in the European Union (EU) is overweight or obese. Within the EU, the United Kingdom has the highest rate of obesity followed by Ireland and Malta. Furthermore, only one in five children in EU countries undertake moderate to vigorous exercise regularly. As a result, obesity has almost doubled in the last 20 years in most EU countries.
Compare Europe’s statistics to the obesity rates in the U.S. over the last 30 years – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report a similar spike in adult and childhood obesity as well as a 33 percent overall obesity rate for American adults – and you have a world-wide epidemic on your hands.
In response, Commissioner Dalli and the European Commission have focused on developing six key strategies to curb the trend:
- Better informed and educated consumers
- Grow access to healthy foods
- Encourage physical activity
- Develop the evidence-based research to support health-conscious policy making
- Develop monitoring systems
- Heavy focus on stemming obesity in children and low socio-economic groups through education and policy.
Commissioner Dalli explained that Europe and any country that struggles with obesity and aims to cultivate healthy behaviors among its citizens must think of “wellness as a policy.” Practically, this means implementing and supporting policies that make a healthy lifestyle possible and natural for consumers.
One of these initiatives in Europe is a healthy eating campaign for European school children with the message “Eat It, Drink It, Move It”, which encourages school children to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and engage in regular physical activity. Other initiatives include providing easy-to-follow nutrition information on food packaging to help guide consumers to healthy nutrition choices and investing in research on childhood nutrition and obesity.
Europe’s food and beverage industry has also become involved in the campaign to curtail obesity. For example, several soft drink companies have pledged not to advertise their products to children under 12 and eight major food retailers operating in the UK have eliminated hydrogenated vegetable oils (Trans fats) from their menus since 2007.
The heavy focus on childhood obesity prevention and treatment efforts is a calculated one, according to Commissioner Dalli. “Children are more vulnerable and more impressionable [to advertising]” but children can also be taught healthy attitude and habits towards physical activity and nutrition early on that will follow them the rest of the lives.
These initiatives in Europe and similar programs in the United States could not come at a more crucial time. Research cited by the European Commission finds that 65 percent of the world’s population lives in countries where being overweight and obese kills more people than malnutrition; and according to the CDC, many parents will outlive their children as the rate of chronic and fatal conditions, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, climb in American children.
Wellness as a policy – a policy with support and funding behind it – as articulated by Commissioner Dalli, is exactly the kind of attitude policy makers across the globe must adopt to ensure the health. “If we want our children to develop healthy eating habits, we need education policies that include nutrition in the school curricula…to be healthy; our citizens need to live in healthy conditions.”