As of May 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that obesity rates in Europe have reached “epidemic proportions.”
An epidemic is defined as “widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.” In the WHO European Region, which comprises 53 countries covering a vast geographical region, prevalence of obesity has risen by a whopping 138% since 1975.
Europe is now second to only the Americas in terms of obesity rates. Which countries in Europe have an obesity crisis? Countries with the highest obesity rates, including among both children and adults, include Turkey, Greece, the U.K., Ireland and Hungary.
WHO estimates that obesity and being overweight are responsible for more than 1.2 million deaths in Europe each year, as they’re linked to higher risk for many chronic diseases, including cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes.
In fact, WHO has even stated that in Europe obesity will likely surpass smoking as the leading risk factor for preventable cancers in the next several decades.
Study Findings: Obesity Epidemic in Europe
What is the obesity rate in Europe? It’s estimated that nearly 60% of adults and about one in three children living in Europe are now either overweight or obese.
Who’s Most at Risk?
Which European country is the most obese? Prevalence of obesity is higher in richer countries across Europe, especially those found in the Mediterranean region and in Eastern Europe.
The European countries with the highest rates of obesity include:
- United Kingdom
Countries such as Austria, Italy, Sweden, Netherlands and Denmark have seen the lowest rise in obesity rates over the past several decades.
Obesity affects men more than women and is also more widespread among people with lower levels of education.
Across the WHO European Region, about 63% of males and 54% of females are overweight or obese. In some countries, up to 70% males are overweight.
That being said, overweight and obesity are spread across the population, affecting both genders and people of all incomes, education levels, employment statuses and places of residence.
Why It Matters
Obesity is said to be a “complex multifactorial disease” that presents a risk to overall health. It’s been identified as a serious public health challenge in Europe, as well as globally, considering it contributes to morbidity and mortality (disease development and death).
It’s now thought that obesity increases the risk for at least 13 types of cancer, and that it’s directly responsible for at least 200,000 new cancer cases annually across Europe. Sadly, this number is only expected to keep rising.
Being obese is also linked to a higher risk for non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and chronic lung disease, which are collectively responsible for almost 70% of all deaths worldwide every year.
What’s causing obesity among Europeans? Contributing factors are thought to include:
- Unhealthy diets — Consumption of processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt is likely the leading cause of excess calorie consumption and obesity.
- COVID-19 pandemic — The pandemic seemed to contribute to adult obesity, childhood obesity and teen obesity rates rising in Europe from 2020 to 2022. School closures, periods of restricted population movements and more time spent being sedentary at home are all potential reasons why.
- Increased use of meal delivery apps — These apps tend to deliver high-calorie foods in large portions, while also decreasing how often people cook healthy meals at home.
- Lack of exercise — Sedentary behaviors, such as working in an office/on a computer for many hours and not doing active things during free time, are other factors causing both kids and adults to gain weight.
- Digitalized societies — A major driver of obesity is increased use of digital devices, which contributes to inactivity and also exposure digital marketing. Marketing unhealthy food products, including to children, can increase calorie consumption, while sedentary hobbies like online gaming cut down on healthier types of activities.
How to Curb Obesity Trends
Unfortunately, experts have found that none of the 53 Member States of the European region are on track to meet the WHO Global Noncommunicable Disease target of halting the rise of obesity by the year 2025.
According to the WHO Regional Director of Europe, “By creating environments that are more enabling, promoting investment and innovation in health, and developing strong and resilient health systems, we can change the trajectory of obesity in the Region.”
Below are some strategies experts and government officials are hoping to use to reverse obesity and prevent rates from climbing:
- Restaurants becoming transparent about nutrition info — Restaurants will be required to display nutrition information to customers to inform them how many calories they’re consuming and from which ingredients. This information also needs to be shared by apps and meal delivery companies, which hopefully encourages people to make healthier choices.
- School lunch programs becoming healthier — 29% of young boys and 27% of young girls in Europe are now overweight or obese. Because many adolescents eat at least one or two meals at school each day, providing healthier options can help limit calorie intake from processed foods.
- Addressing dietary inequalities — Some governments have established goals of improving accessibility and affordability of healthy foods to people of all income levels, which may help cut down on consumption of cheap, highly processed and fast food.
- Achieving environmentally sustainable food systems — In order to provide healthy food at reasonable prices to all citizens, governments need to work on maintaining sustainable farms that produce fresh food locally.
- Less use of plastics that may affect hormone levels — Some studies have found that widespread use of plastics may be linked to obesity. Chemicals found in plastic food containers and water bottles, such as bisphenol and phthalates, seem capable of altering hormones and increasing weight gain, according to studies done mostly on animals. Eating unpackaged foods, avoiding heating or freezing plastic containers, and storing drinks and food in glass or stainless steel are all steps that can help lower exposure to these questionable chemicals.
Other steps that WHO and individual governments can take to promote better health throughout Europe include:
- Taxation on sugar-sweetened beverages
- Subsidies for healthy foods
- Restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children
- Improvement of access to obesity and overweight management services, including in primary health care settings
- Preconception and pregnancy care to help mothers eat well while pregnant and when breastfeeding
- School-based interventions to improve physical activity
- More opportunities for physical activity in communities, such as by creating free access to parks, walking trails, gyms, etc.
- When was obesity considered an epidemic in Europe? The World Health Organization states in May 2022 that obesity rates across Europe are now an epidemic, affecting between 50% to 70% of adults and about one-third of children.
- Males and people with lower incomes are most likely to become overweight or obese, but this problem affects people of all demographics.
- Contributing factors to obesity can include working long hours while sitting down, little exercise, more sedentary hobbies, school closings, ordering more takeout and less home cooking.
- Tackling obesity will require many societal changes, such as improving access to healthy foods, limiting marketing of processed foods, taxing sugary beverages and making it easier to stay active.