Early nutrition vital to fighting back against EU childhood obesity crisis

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Europe needs a priority rethink, says UEG report, with only one out of the 58 topics currently receiving EU research funding focused on paediatric health. Image credit: United European Gastroenterology
Europe needs a priority rethink, says UEG report, with only one out of the 58 topics currently receiving EU research funding focused on paediatric health. Image credit: United European Gastroenterology

Related tags: Obesity

European children are ‘in crisis’ over the risk of gut disease and obesity, according to a new report that calls for renewed focus on pediatric digestive health. 

The report commissioned by United European Gastroenterology (UEG) highlights how the social and economic burden of paediatric digestive health issues – in particular increasing levels of childhood obesity – have reached pandemic proportions in Europe. 

According to the report​, one in every three children aged between six and nine years are overweight or obese, with childhood obesity particularly prevalent in Italy and Spain – where 35% of 11-year-old boys and 22% of 11-year-old girls are affected. 

UEG warned that childhood obesity is increasing at an ‘alarming rate’, and predicted the global number of children under five who are overweight will rise from the current 41 million to 70 million by 2025 if current trends continue. 

In addition to rapidly rising rates of childhood obesity, the report also highlights worrying trends towards childhood onset inflammatory bowl disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. 

“Early nutrition and obesity needs serious attention and urgent action to ensure that the EU Commission’s goal to halt the increase in childhood obesity by 2020 is met,”​ the report warns. 

Key facts from the report

  • In 46 European countries, one in every three children aged 6 to 9 years is overweight or obese
  • Childhood onset of inflammatory bowel disease now accounts for 20 to 30% of all IBD cases
  • Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease has become the most common cause of chronic liver disease in children, with cases documented as young as three years old

Call to action​ 

The UEG report suggests the current ‘one size fits all’ approach to digestive health, which sees many children receive potentially inappropriate adult care, must stop and make way for a more tailored approach. 

"It is important for stakeholders and policy makers to appreciate that children have complex physical, psychological and social needs and these must be met by trained paediatric specialists to improve the accessibility of optimal care for children today and in future generations,”​ said Professor Berthold Koletzko, chairman of the European Society for Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN), and coordinator of the EarlyNutrition collaborative research programme. 

The report calls for urgent attention and resource investment, and outlines a six-point plan to target better peadiatric care in Europe – including the development of national strategies and public health campaigns for education, prevention and early intervention; improved and harmonised training; and encouraging further research into childhood digestive diseases and early life programming.  

"In spite of 20% of the European population being children and the incidence of gastrointestinal diseases increasing, it is extremely worrying that only one out of 58 topics currently receiving EU research funding is focused on paediatric health,"​ said Koletzko.

"Priorities need to change quickly to appreciate the specific issues of paediatric digestive provision and ensure greater investment into prevention, cost-effective diagnostic measures and harmonised training."

He noted that early nutrition and metabolism can programme health later in life and that balanced nutrition in pregnancy, breast feeding and appropriate food choices in early childhood reduce the risk of both rapid weight gain in infancy and of obesity in later life.

“With growing evidence of the link between early nutrition and lifestyle and obesity, and digestive health in general, we must prioritise research into the underlying mechanisms and focus our resources and training on prevention strategies,”​ said UEG scientific committee member Professor Herbert Tilg from Innsbruck Medical University. 

Tilg warned that the economic burden of treating adult obesity is already “just too great for the European region”​ and that “priorities need to change quickly". 

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