Obesity is a major public health challenge affecting 800 million people worldwide, with rates rapidly increasing (1). It is expected that one quarter of the global population will be living with obesity by 2035, and childhood obesity rates are set to double (1).
In Europe, it is estimated that 17% of adults live with obesity, which will rise to 50% by 2030 (2, 3). Furthermore, obesity dramatically increases the risks for ill health and early death from a range of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) especially type 2 diabetes. Obesity also exacerbates the severity of other conditions whilst reducing the effectiveness of treatment regimes, as the COVID-19 pandemic amply demonstrates. These rising numbers and additional health risks not only impact individuals, but also pose a financial burden on healthcare systems, with roots in societal inequities, stigma and discrimination (4, 5).
Obesity is not a matter of personal choice or willpower; it is a chronic disease driven by a range of biological, genetic, environmental, and social factors, including experience of poverty and food pricing.
Despite this, people living with obesity frequently face stigma and discrimination, which can exacerbate the negative health effects of the disease and make it more difficult to access necessary medical care (4).
To address the growing obesity epidemic, numerous strategies and interventions have been implemented. For instance, the World Health Organization (WHO) has recently provided updated recommendations and new targets for the prevention and management of obesity, accompanied by an Acceleration Plan (6).
On World Obesity Day 2023, we have an opportunity to come together to raise awareness about the root causes of obesity and to end stigma. This day aims to shift the conversation from blaming individuals to recognising that obesity is a systemic problem that requires collective action. By changing the perspective from “me” to “we”, we can work towards creating a more supportive and equitable society that addresses the systemic issues that contribute to obesity (7).
These roots are multifactorial and often overlapping. Firstly, it is known that people experiencing poverty are more likely to live with obesity. Therefore, taking a social justice approach, behavioural interventions focusing on diet and physical activity must be complimented by actions addressing the higher cost of healthy food and lack of green spaces in deprived areas.
Secondly, it is essential to ensure the effective right to advanced universal health coverage and equitable access to medicines and healthcare, including equitable access for the management and treatment of obesity and its co-morbidities, irrespective of socio-economic status and country of origin.
Thirdly, accessibility and affordability of food plays a major role. For example, dietary patterns rich in products high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) contribute to a major intake of empty calories. These cheap, edible products are often ultra-processed foods (UPFs) and are usually widely advertised and promoted. Limiting this promotion, especially the marketing of unhealthy foods targeted to kids, together with enabling the access and affordability of fruits and vegetables, are crucial steps forward on the eradication of obesity.
At EPHA, we call for the end of stigmatisation of people living with obesity, and for an active and collective support from the European and national policymakers to tackle the roots of obesity. We aim for the change of perspective, from individuals to environments, from the “Me” to the “We”.
Only by joining forces we will be able to reframe this major public health challenge and support millions of citizens.
(1) World Obesity Federation. (2021). World Obesity Day 2021 Facts and Figures. Retrieved from https://www.worldobesityday.org/assets/downloads/Factsheet_-_English_1.pdf
(2) Eurostat. (2021, July 21). Overweight and obesity – BMI statistics. Retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Overweight_and_obesity_-_BMI_statistics
(3) Webber, L., Divajeva, D., Marsh, T., McPherson, K., Brown, M., Galea, G., … & Breda, J. (2014). The future burden of obesity-related diseases in the 53 WHO European-Region countries and the impact of effective interventions: a modelling study. BMJ Open, 4(7), e004787. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/7/e004787.full
(4) Afshin, A., Sur, P. J., Fay, K. A., Cornaby, L., Ferrara, G., Salama, J. S., … & Mokdad, A. H. (2019). Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. The Lancet, 393(10184), 1958-1972. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(19)30041-8
(5) Puhl, R. M., & Heuer, C. A. (2010). Obesity stigma: Important considerations for public health. American Journal of Public Health, 100(6), 1019-1028. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2009.159491
(6) World Health Organization. (2022). Report by the Director-General: Follow-up to the Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases. Retrieved from https://apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf_files/EB150/B150_7-en.pdf
(7) Glanz, K. (2019). Raising awareness of the root causes of obesity. World Obesity Day. Retrieved from https://www.worldobesityday.org/resources/raising-awareness-of-the-root-causes-of-obesity/