Cent Eur J Publ Health 2006; 14 (4): 151–159
THE EPIDEMIC OF OBESITy IN CHILDREN
AND ADOLESCENTS IN THE WORLD
Rena I. Kosti, Demosthenes B. Panagiotakos
Department of Food Science and Technology, Agricultural University of Athens, Athens, Greece & Department of Nutrition and Dietetics,
Harokopio University of Athens, Greece
The prevalence of obesity has reached alarming levels, affecting virtually both developed and developing countries of all socio-economic
groups, irrespective of age, sex or ethnicity. Concerning childhood obesity, it has been estimated that worldwide over 22 million children under the
age of 5 are severely overweight, and one in 10 children are overweight. This global average reects a wide range of prevalence levels, with the
prevalence of overweight in Africa and Asia averaging well below 10% and in the Americas and Europe above 20%. The proportion of school-age
children affected will almost double by 2010 compared with the most recently available surveys from the late 1990s up to 2003. In the European
Union, the number of children who are overweight is expected to rise by 1.3 million children per year, with more than 300,000 of them becoming
obese each year without urgent action to counteract the trend. By 2010 it is estimated that 26 million children in EU countries will be overweight,
including 6.4 million who will be obese. Moreover, in the USA the prevalence of obesity in adolescents has increased dramatically from 5% to 13%
in boys and from 5% to 9% in girls between 1966–70 and 1988–91. In this review paper we present the epidemiology of obesity in children and
adolescents, including prevalence rates, trends, and risk factors associated with this phenomenon.
Key words: obesity, prevalence, risk factors, children, adolescents
Address for correspondence: Demosthenes B. Panagiotakos, 46 Paleon Polemiston St., 16674, Glyfada, Greece.
The prevalence of obesity has reached alarming levels, with
more than 1 billion overweight adults of which 300 million are
considered as clinically obese. Obesity is affecting virtually
both developed and developing countries of all socioeconomic
groups including all age groups thereby posing an alarming
problem, described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as
an “escalating global epidemic”(1). Worldwide, over 22 million
children under the age of 5 are severely overweight, as are 155
million children of school age. This implies that one in 10 children
worldwide are overweight (2). This global average reflects a wide
range of prevalence levels, with the prevalence of overweight in
Africa and Asia averaging well below 10% and in the Americas
and Europe above 20% (3). The proportion of school-age children
affected will almost double by 2010 compared with the most
recently available surveys from the late 1990s up to 2003 (4). In
the European Union, the number of children who are overweight
is expected to rise by 1.3 million children per year, with more
than 300,000 of them becoming obese each year without urgent
action to counteract the trend (4). By 2010 it is estimated 26
million children in EU countries will be overweight, including
6.4 million who will be obese (Table 1) (4). A potential deluge is
evident across the globe with obesity rates increasing more than
twofold over the past 25 years in the U.S., almost threefold in
the past 10 years in England, and almost fourfold over a similar
time frame in Egypt (5). Moreover, in the USA the prevalence
of obesity in adolescents has increased dramatically from 5% to
13% in boys and from 5% to 9% in girls between 1966-70 and
1988-91 (1). In a single year from 2000 to 2001, the prevalence
Table 1. Prevalence and projections of overweight / obesity in children
and adolescents in various regions of the World
27.7 9.6 46.4 15.2
23.5 5.9 41.7 11.5
25.5 5.4 38.2 10
South East Asia
10.6 1.5 22.9 5.3
12 2.3 27.2 7
*There were insufcient data on school-age children in the WHO African Region
to make estimates of projected prevalence rates
of obesity increased among U.S. adults from 19.8% in 2000 to
20.9% in 2001 (5.6% increase) (6). If sustained at this rate over
the next 10 years, the prevalence of obesity will rise by another
74%, with fully one third of the US population becoming obese
by 2030 (6).
This paper presents a review of the epidemiology of obesity
in children and adolescents, including prevalence rates, trends,
and risk factors associated with this phenomenon, in various
parts of the world.
DEFINITION OF CHILDHOOD OBESITY
Obesity is a consequence of an energy imbalance – i.e.,
when energy intake exceeds energy expenditure over an
extended period of time (7). Until recently, there has been
confusion in international published work about the definition
of childhood obesity, rendering comparisons of childhood
obesity rates difficult (8). The most widely used measure-
ment to define obesity is the body mass index (BMI)
) where Cole et al. (9) determined values
of BMI to define overweight among children, using six large
nationally representative data sets drawn from population
CONSEQUENCES OF OBESITY IN CHILDHOOD
As stated in the report of a WHO Consultation on Obesity
(1), “overweight and obesity lead to adverse metabolic effects
on blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin
resistance. Some confusion of the consequences of obesity
arises because researchers have used different BMI cut-offs,
and because the presence of many medical conditions involved
in the development of obesity may confuse the effects of
obesity itself. The more life-threatening problems are those
associated with cardio-vascular disease (CVD), conditions
associated with insulin resistance, such as type 2 diabetes,
certain types of cancers, and gallbladder disease. There is a
range of non-fatal health problems associated with obesity,
which include respiratory difficulties, chronic musculoskeletal
problems, skin problems and infertility. The likelihood of
developing type 2 diabetes and hypertension rises steeply with
increasing body fatness. Confined to older adults for most of
the 20th century, this disease now affects obese children even
before puberty. Approximately 85% of people with diabetes are
type 2, and of these, 90% are obese or overweight“ (1).
Overweight and obesity in childhood and adolescence are
associated with a range of psychosocial and medical
complications that are both immediate and long term (10)
have severe economic consequences (11).
From the psycho-social point of view, the findings of a
recent study (12) showed associations of weight status with
social relationships, school experiences, psychological
well-being, and some future aspirations were observed.
Among girls, the pattern of observations indicates that
obese girls reported more adverse social, educational, and
psychological correlates. Obese as well as underweight
boys also reported some adverse social and educational
correlates. These findings contribute to an understanding
f how adolescent experiences vary by weight status and
suggest social and psychological risks associated with not
meeting weight and body shape ideals embedded in the larger
culture. The study is a cross sectional one, of school-age
adolescents (4,742 males and 5,201 females). Results showed
that obese girls, when compared with their average weight
counterparts, were 1.63 times less likely to associate with
friends in the last week, 1.49 times more likely to report serious
emotional problems in the last year, 1.79 times more likely to
report hopelessness, and 1.73 times more likely to report a
suicide attempt in the last year. Obese girls were also 1.51
times more likely to report being held back a grade and 2.09
times more likely to consider themselves as poor students
compared with average weight girls. Compared with their
average weight counterparts, obese boys were 1.91 times less
likely to associate with friends in the last week, 1.34 times
more likely to feel that their friends do not care about them,
1.38 times more likely to report having serious problems in the
last year, 1.46 times more likely to consider themselves as poor
students, and 2.18 times more likely to expect to quit school.
Compared with average weight boys, underweight boys were
1.67 times more likely to report associating with friends in the
last week, 1.22 times more likely to report disliking school and
1.40 times more likely to consider themselves poor students.
The limitations of this study must also be considered. All
measures were self-reported and consequently subject to
reporting bias. Since the study is cross-sectional it is impossible
and incorrect to make causal inferences of the observed
associations. In addition the results are co-relational and
residual confounding is always a possibility. Nevertheless,
these issues are timely and may be meaningful in promoting
positive social and educational experiences for all young
people, as well as designing sensitive strategies for preventing
and treating obesity.
On the other hand, from the medical point of view, there is
an increasing amount of data showing that being overweight
during childhood and adolescence is significantly associated
with insulin resistance, dyslipidemia, and elevated blood
pressure in young adulthood (13). Although obesity-associated
morbidities occur more frequently in adults, significant
consequences of obesity as well as the antecedents of adult
disease occur in obese children and adolescents (14). The
Bogalusa Heart Study (15) shows that childhood BMI is
associated with adult adiposity, although it is possible that the
magnitude of the association depends on the relative fatness of
children. The most common medical consequences of obesity
in youth have hyperlipidemia, glucose intolerance, hepatic
steatosis and cholelithiasis while on the other hand, the less
common medical consequences of obesity are hypertension,
pseudotumor cerebri, sleep apnea and orthopaedic
complications and polycystic ovary disease (14).
findings from a study (16) conducted in Israel, showed that
iron deficiency (ID) is common in overweight and obese
children. The study sample included 321 children and
adolescents. A significantly greater proportion of obese than
normal-weight children have iron deficiency anemia (IDA)
(58,3% vs 6,7%). Insufficient dietary intake of iron, whether
absolute or relative to body mass, and increased iron needs may
be a result of unbalanced nutrition or repeated short-term
restrictive diets. The main limitation of their study is the use of
serum iron level, which was selected because it is readily
available in many biochemical tests. However, infections and
inflammations can decrease serum iron concentration, and there
may be day-to-day variations within individuals. Because of
potentially harmful effects of ID, obese children should be
routinely screened and treated as necessary (16).
Apart from the severe health consequences of childhood and
adolescence obesity, a
study demonstrates that the
obesity epidemic has deleterious economic consequences (11).
Obesity is responsible for between 5% and 7% of the total
annual medical expenditures in the U.S., and (11) based on an
estimation of the 2001 Surgeon General report on obesity, a
projection for 2003 suggested that the total costs of obesity
might be as high as $139 billion per year (11).
In addition, the
same study suggests that technology may be primarily
responsible for the obesity epidemic. Technological
advancements have allowed us to be increasingly productive at
work and at home while expending fewer calories and have also
reduced food prices, especially prices for energy-dense foods
(11). These changes directly increase net calories and may
interact with other factors (e.g., television, the built
environment) to further promote weight gain (11). Obesity is
not only a health but also an economic phenomenon (11).
Several economic factors affect our food consumption and
physical activity decisions and ultimately our weight (11).
ETIOLOGY OF OBESITY
Taking into serious
the severe consequences
of obesity, it is of enormous importance to identify the risk
factors. This task is not an easy one, since the etiology for child
and adolescent obesity is not clear. Obesity is a complex
condition with genetic, metabolic, behavioural and
environmental factors all contributing to its development (8).
However, the dramatic increase in the prevalence of obesity in
the past few decades can only be due to significant changes in
lifestyle influencing children and adults alike (8). These
obesity-promoting environmental factors are usually referred to
today under the general term of “obesogenic” or “obesigenic”
(3). The current changing nature of this obesogenic
environment has been well described in a WHO Technical
“Changes in the world food economy have contributed to
shifting dietary patterns, for example, increased consumption of
energy-dense diets high in fat, particularly saturated fat, and
low in unrefined
. These patterns are combined
with a decline in energy expenditure that is associated with a
sedentary lifestyle, motorized transport, labour-saving devices
at home, the phasing out of physically demanding manual tasks
in the workplace, and leisure time that is preponderantly
devoted to physically undemanding pastimes.” Under the
notion “lifestyle” are included dietary changes, changes in work
and leisure patterns, cultural, behavioural, geographical,
environmental, social and economic factors (17).
apart from genetic factors, the prerequisite for becoming obese
is an imbalance between energy expenditure, modulated
primarily by physical activity, and energy intake from foods
and drinks (17).
TRENDS IN DIETARY PATTERNS
Findings from a longitudinal study (18) conducted in the
U.S. showed that total fat consumption expressed as a
percentage of energy intake has decreased among U.S. children.
However, this decrease is largely the result of increased total
energy intake in the form of carbohydrates and not necessarily
due to decreased fat consumption. The majority of children
–17 years are not meeting recommendations for Ca
intake. Much of this deficit is attributed to changing beverage
consumption patterns, characterized by declining milk intakes
and substantial increases in soft-drink consumption. On
average, U.S. children are not eating the recommended amounts
of fruits and vegetables. U.S. adolescents become less active as
they get older, and one quarter of all U.S. children watch ≥4 h
television each day, which is positively associated with
increased BMI and skinfold thickness. Thus, the author
concludes that there is an urgent need in the U.S.A. for
effective prevention strategies aimed at helping children grow
up with healthful eating and physical activity habits to achieve
optimal growth (18).
Findings from another longitudinal study (19) conducted in
Sweden in the period 1993
–1999, showed that food habits
change significantly during adolescence along with lifestyle
changes. The sample included 208 adolescents of both gender.
From the results it was derived that at 17 and 21 years of age,
the adolescents consumed significantly more often pasta,
vegetables, coffee and tea compared to those of age 15, while
the frequency consumption of fat spread, milk, bread, potatoes,
carrots and buns and biscuits decreased. The changes between
–17 were smaller than between age 17 and age 21. At age
21, the males decreased their intake of fruit, while females
decreased their intake of meat. Non-meat consumers among
females increased from 2 to 13%. Higher educational level of
the mothers of the adolescents was associated with more
frequent consumption of vegetables and pasta between ages 17
and 21. Milk consumption decreased significantly in both
sexes. Breakfast habits did not change: 90% had breakfast five
times a week or more. Thus, it seems that adolescents during
these age periods are prepared to change their dietary habits in
different directions (19).
In addition, an overview (20) of current studies in the Nordic
countries showed that overweight and obesity seem to become
more common among adolescents, even though the prevalence
figures are far from those in the U.S.A. On the other hand,
dieting girls are common among adolescents, which might be a
factor behind irregular meal pattern and food choices. The
common smoking habits are a powerful predictor of
adolescents’ eating habits. The studies conducted in the Nordic
countries involved adolescents aged 13 to18 years. The results
revealed that food habits are characterized by an irregular meal
pattern; many adolescents skip breakfast and also the school
lunch, whereas most of them have dinner. However, snacking
and light meals are very common contributing 25
–35% of the
daily energy intake. Smoking is linked to their dietary habits as
well as socio-economic conditions. Dietary intakes of vitamins
and minerals are adequate for normal health and growth.
Dietary calcium intake is high whereas the intake of fibre,
vitamin D, zinc and selenium and, in girls, iron is below the
Nordic recommendations. Relatively low prevalence figures of
iron deficiency were found. Furthermore, there is a decrease
over time in physical activity while the time spent on sedentary
activities, such as television and video watching and computer
games has increased during recent decades (20).
Findings from a systematic review (21) of school aged youth
–16 years) conducted in 34 countries show that the two
countries with the highest prevalence of overweight (pre-obese
+ obese) and obese youth were Malta (25.4% and 7.9%) and the
United States (25.1% and 6.8%) while the two countries with
the lowest prevalence were Lithuania (5.1% and 0.4%) and
Latvia (5.9% and 0.5%). Overweight and obesity prevalence
was particularly high in countries located in North America,
Great Britain, and south-western Europe. Within most
countries, physical activity levels were lower and television
viewing times were higher in overweight compared to normal
weight youth. In 91% of the countries examined, the frequency
of sweets intake was lower in overweight than normal weight
youth. Overweight status was not associated with the intake of
fruits, vegetables, and soft drinks or time spent on the
A total of 162,305 youth completed the survey. However,
this survey has some limitations. The primary limitation of this
study was that the body weights and heights were self-reported.
A second limitation was that 14% of the youth surveyed did not
report their height and weight. A third limitation of the study
was that the dietary patterns and physical activity variables
were also self-reported, and information was only obtained on
the frequency and not the total volume for these variables. A
final limitation of this study was that the associations observed
between overweight status with dietary and physical activity
patterns were based on cross-sectional data and therefore causal
inferences cannot be implied. In conclusion, the study suggests
that increasing physical activity participation and decreasing
television viewing should be the focus of strategies aimed at
preventing and treating overweight condition and obesity in
Findings from a literature review (22)
on the nutritional
status and food intake in adolescents living in Western Europe
showed that it is generally observed that obesity rates are
increasing in young people, whereas declared energy intake is
decreasing. Average daily energy input seems adequate in
adolescents of Western Europe. However, fat intake,
particularly saturated fat, is high while that of CHO and fibre is
low. Proteins are mainly two-thirds from animal sources.
Average micronutrient intakes correspond to recommended
values in most cases, but there are a few exceptions (Ca and Fe)
that are low, particularly in girls. Specific problems become
frequent among adolescents such as dieting, smoking, getting
low quality foods away from home, etc. These behaviours may
induce adverse nutritional conditions. On average, nutritional
problems at adolescence do not appear to be more severe than
at other ages, although they may exert a strong deleterious
impact on future health. Growth processes however are still
continuing and nutritional inadequacies at adolescence could
have a life-long health impact. Low physical activity, which is
common in industrialized countries, may particularly affect the
somatic and psychological development of adolescents. At this
age transition in lifestyle, it is important to implement the
conditions of sound nutritional and behavioural habits. The
main limitation of the afore-mentioned review is that although
comparisons were attempted and similarities suggested between
various geographical areas, it remains difficult to develop
useful, pertinent comparisons between countries, due to large
methodological differences between the individual studies.
Thus, the conduction of standardized, cross sectional cross-
cultural investigations is proposed, which could bring much
valuable information and might allow relevant meaningful
relationships to be established between elements of lifestyle
and nutritional status in adolescence (22).
TRENDS IN PHYSICAL ACTIVITY PATTERNS
The current review examines the effect of changing physical
activity patterns on the prevalence of adolescent obesity.
Findings from a recent study (23) showed that decreasing
sedentary behaviours can decrease energy intake in non-
overweight adolescent youth and should be considered an
important component of interventions to prevent obesity and to
regulate body weight. The study conducted in a sample of 16
–16-year-old youth in a within-subject
crossover design with three 3-week phases: baseline, increasing
targeted sedentary behaviours by 25
–50% (increase phase), and
decreasing targeted sedentary behaviours by 25
phase). Specifically, targeted sedentary behaviours increased by
45.8% and decreased by 61.2% from baseline. Girls increased
sedentary behaviours significantly more than did boys in the
increase phase. Energy intake decreased when sedentary
behaviours decreased. No significant changes in energy intake
were observed when sedentary behaviours were increased.
Youth also increased their activity when sedentary behaviours
were decreased. One limitation of the study was the ability to
include only slightly over 50% of the non-overweight
adolescents because of under-reporting of energy intake. The
degree of under-reporting was greater for the overweight
adolescents. The degree of under-reporting was so great for
overweight youth that the reported energy intakes for the
overweight (n = 19) and non-overweight (n = 30) adolescents
were approximately equal despite the fact that the overweight
youth were 56.8% heavier than the non-overweight youth,
which limited analysis to the non-overweight youth.
Particularly because accelerometry in youth is strongly related
to energy expenditure assessed by double-labelled water, an
important research need for future studies is to identify methods
of estimating total energy intake that are not subject to self-
reporting bias, perhaps by estimating energy intake from
objectively measured physical activity. A second limitation is
that the phases were relatively short, and longer phases may
show a different pattern of adaptation over time. Longer phases
would provide the opportunity to assess the influence of
changes in sedentary behaviour on body weight, which was not
assessed in this study at each phase. These findings may be
important for understanding how changing sedentary
behaviours influence energy intake and energy balance so that
more effective and targeted interventions can be developed for
the prevention of youth obesity and the treatment of obese
The association between energy intake and television
viewing in adolescents was studied in a cross-sectional study
(24) in which 2,546 students participated. The main finding is
that on an average 1 hour of watching television equals the
consumption of 653 kJ. The adolescents in this study watched
between 19 and 25 hours of television a week. Only about 3.5%
of them generally abstain from eating snacks or sweets or
drinking soft drinks while they watch TV. It seems therefore
safe to state that watching television is generally accompanied
by the intake of food and snacks. The added energy intake is
considerable. In boys it is close to 20% of their daily Average
Energy Allowance (AEA), in girls it is a little less than 15%.
The question then becomes whether restricting energy intake
while watching television might be a solution. If snacking and
drinking energy containing drinks is a need similar to watching
television, then restricting this behaviour during television
viewing will only result in a shift in snacking and drinking
behaviour. In such a case adolescents would find other times
and other ways to indulge in these needs. This is an avenue
worth investigating. If the extra energy intake is a behaviour
specifically associated with watching television, then this might
offer opportunities for intervention (24).
However, a Swedish study (25) refutes the speculation that
reduced physical activity (PA) is associated with increased fat
mass (FM). Specifically, results showed that PA was
independently associated with FM in males but not in females.
The data also showed an intergenerational association of FM
between mothers and their daughters, but not between mothers
and their sons. The study is a cross-sectional one in 445 17-
year-old adolescents and their mothers. According to the
results, males were significantly more active than were females.
PA was significantly and inversely associated with FM in males
but not in females. However, FM and percentage FM in
females were significantly associated with maternal FM and
education level. No such associations were observed in males.
Several limitations should be considered in interpreting the
findings from the present study. First, it is not possible to infer
a causal relation from cross-sectional data such as those in the
current study. Second, the subjects may not be representative of
Swedish adolescents in general. Third, self-reported PA is
associated with recall bias. In conclusion, a clear sex difference
was observed for the association between PA and FM in
adolescents. Data also suggest a behavioural intergenerational
association of FM between mothers and their daughters. Future
studies, incorporating precise measures of exposures and
outcome variables in parents and their offspring are needed, to
test whether such an association also exists between fathers and
their sons (25).
OTHER RISK FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH THE
PREVALENCE OF OBESITY IN CHILDREN AND
This review indicates that various other risk factors are
associated with the development of obesity in childhood and
adolescence. The protective effect of breast-feeding against
later obesity may not last through to adulthood, but obesity in
later childhood is itself a predictor of adult disease, even if
weight is lost and the adult is not obese (26). Therefore if
breast-feeding protects against childhood obesity, that in itself
may reduce the risk of adult diseases (overall morbidity and
mortality from heart disease are both linked to adolescent
obesity, irrespective of adult weight) (26).
changes in maternal and, therefore, foetal nutrient supply at
specific stages of gestation have the potential to substantially
increase the risk of those offspring becoming obese in later life
(27). The extent to which changes in dietary habits, both during
pregnancy and in later life, may act to contribute to the current
explosion in childhood and adult obesity still remains a
scientific and public health challenge (27).
In addition, during puberty, changes in body composition
occur, when girls tend to increase fat mass as a result of
maturation while boys tend to increase muscle and other non-
fat body mass (3).
A recent study (28)
showed that parental overweight status is
an important determinant of whether a child is overweight at
either stage or changes from being not overweight at 5 years to
becoming so at 14 years. This is a population-based prospective
birth cohort study of 2,934 children who were examined at ages
5 and 14 years. The authors concluded that the results could
suggest that children whose parents were overweight or obese
were more likely to change from being not overweight at age 5
years to being overweight at 14 years and were more likely to
be overweight at both ages. Maternal overweight status in
particular was associated with these transitions. However, the
study has limitations since the participation rate at both ages
was 41% and the other important factors related to physical
activity and diet, known to be important determinants of
childhood BMI are not assessed, due to the lack of relevant
(28). The authors suggest that tackling adult
obesity is likely to be important both for their own health
benefit and that of their offspring and has to be taken into
serious consideration in the design of intervention studies (28).
In addition, apart from gender and ethnicity, the following risks
factors should be mentioned (29): a) earlier adiposity rebound
is associated with increased body fatness in adolescence; b)
socio-economic status is another risk factor. In some developed
countries, poorer children or those who live in rural settings are
more at risk of obesity, whereas in countries undergoing
economic transition childhood obesity is associated with a more
affluent lifestyle and with living in urban regions; c) underlying
medical disorders; d) prescription drugs (29).
ASSOCIATIONS OF THE “MOSTLY BLAMED ”
DIETARY PATTERNS WITHIN THE
Let us first discuss the mostly blamed dietary patterns
within the obesogenic environment. In a recent survey (30),
the association between food habits and weight status was
investigated in children who participated in the Bogalusa
Heart Study. A 24-h dietary recall was collected over a 21-
year period on a cross-sectional sample of 1,562 children
aged 10 year. Results show that numerous eating patterns
were associated with overweight status. Particularly, con-
sumption of sweetened beverages (58% soft drinks, 20%
fruit flavour drinks, 19% tea, and 3% coffee), sweets (des-
serts, candy, and sweetened beverages), meats (mixed meats,
poultry, seafood, eggs, pork, and beef) and total consumption
of low-quality foods were positively associated with
overweight status. The total amount of food consumed,
specifically from snacks, was positively associated with
overweight status. There was a lack of congruency in the types
of eating patterns associated with overweight status across
four ethnic-gender groups. The interaction of ethnicity and
gender was significantly associated with overweight status.
However, the study has the following limitations: Firstly, it
was a cross sectional analysis and thus causal inferences can-
not be made. Secondly, only a single 24-hour dietary recall
was collected on each participant.
Finally, the researchers
suggest that additional studies are needed to confirm these
findings in a longitudinal sample having multiple days of as-
sessment (30). Furthermore, the findings from a prospective
hort study in the US (31)
including more than 10,000 boys and
girls aged 9–14 years, showed that the consumption of sugar-
added beverages was associated with small BMI gains during
the corresponding year and may contribute to weight gain among
adolescents, probably due to their contribution to total energy
A major limitation of their study was the necessity of col-
lecting data (including height, weight, and beverage intakes) by
Food Frequency Questionnaires (FFQ) on youth by self-report on
mailed questionnaires. Their FFQ did suggest portion sizes, but
did not specify the number of ounces in a can or glass, so confu-
sion over this may have further biased their estimates toward the
null. In addition, authors cannot claim that the children of nurses
are a representative sample of U.S. children. The study suggests
that beverage intake, including limiting the consumption of soft
drinks, is a potential target for diet improvement (31).
Another study (32) however refutes widespread speculation
that carbohydrated soft drinks are responsible for the increase in
overweight among children and adolescents. 3,111 children and
adolescents of both gender participated in the study. Data from
these participants from the years 1994–1996 and 1998 were col-
lected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The total amount
and the types of beverages consumed were analyzed according
to age, race, and gender. It was found that age, race, and gender
play a significant role in the total amount, types, and relative
proportions of beverages consumed by children and adolescents.
The relationship between body mass index (BMI) and beverage
consumption is unclear. More specifically, researchers found that
BMI was only related to consumption of diet carbonated bevera-
ges and milk, while those relationships were weak and that total
beverage consumption and beverage choices are strongly related
to age, race, and gender. Older teens tend to drink more carbonated
beverages, fruit drinks/ades, and citrus juice, but less fluid milk
and non-citrus juice. White adolescent boys are heavy consumers
of most beverages, including carbonated soft drinks, milk, and
fruit drinks/ades. BMI is positively associated with the consump-
tion of diet carbonated beverages and negatively associated with
the consumption of citrus juice. BMI was not associated with the
consumption of milk, regular carbonated beverages, regular or
diet fruit drinks/ades, or non-citrus juices. Finally, researchers
suggest that careful monitoring of children’s beverage intake is
nevertheless warranted because caloric contributions must be
balanced with energy expenditure (32).
Similarly the findings from a study (33) that assessed whether
intake of snack foods was associated with weight change among
children and adolescents refute the widespread speculation and
suggest that, although snack foods may have low nutritional value,
they were not an important independent determinant of weight
gain among children and adolescents. In this prospective cohort
study, 8,203 girls and 6,774 boys 9–14 years of age participated.
The results showed that boys consumed more snack foods than
girls during the entire study period. There was no relation between
intake of snack foods and subsequent changes in BMI z-score
among the boys, but snack foods had a weak inverse association
with weight change among the girls. The association between
servings per day of snack foods and subsequent changes in BMI
z-score were not significant in either gender. However, the most
important limitation of this study apart from the fact that weight
and height information was based on self-report is that, the study
does not represent a random sample of all US adolescent males
and females, since the participants are children of nurses, and
thus the study includes relatively few children of low socioeco-
nomic status in the sample. Moreover, the study does not provide
information on the father’s weight status, thus there is incomplete
information on parental weight status. Another limitation is that
the study assessed snack foods, but not snacking occasions. There-
fore the authors did not assess snacking on other foods, such as
cereal and sandwiches, which may contribute an equal number of
calories as snack foods. Since their definitions of snacking were
based on types of foods eaten, not eating occasion, they may
have misclassified some youth in terms of snacking patterns. It
is possible that their results are therefore biased towards the null,
which could explain the lack of positive association. Future studies
are needed which assess snacking patterns, including snacking on
items other than ‘snack foods,’ and the role snack foods play in
overall dietary intake and weight changes. However, since most
snack food items are of poor diet quality, thus regardless of the
lack of association between intake of snack foods and subsequent
weight gain, it would be prudent to recommend consuming snack
foods only in moderation (33).
At the same time, marked changes in eating culture and
behaviour have occurred at an extremely rapid pace (17). Firstly,
a U.S. study showed (34)
portion sizes and energy intake
for specific food types have increased markedly with greatest
increases for food consumed at fast food establishments and at
home. The sample of the study consists of 63,380 individuals,
from two surveys, aged 2 years and older. Specifically, portion
sizes vary by food source, with the largest portions consumed
at fast food establishments and the smallest at other restaurants.
Between 1977 and 1996, food portion sizes increased both inside
and outside the home for all categories except pizza. The energy
intake and portion size of salty snacks increased by 93 kcal,
soft drinks by 49 kcal, hamburgers by 97 kcal, French fries by
68 kcal, and Mexican food by 133 kcal. Some potential limitations
of the study are that the USDA changed its methods for collecting
dietary data during the period 1989–1998 and that persons who
are overweight most likely under-report their energy intake (34).
Finally, the results of this study propose that control of portion
size must be systematically addressed both in general as it relates
to fast food pricing and marketing (34).
These observations are justified by the findings of another
study (11) which mentioned that reductions in the relative price
of energy-dense foods and an increased prevalence of marginal
cost pricing , i.e. “supersizing” have resulted not only in an incre-
ase in food consumption between meals, but also in an increase
in the amount of food consumed at each meal (11).
since it has been estimated that children are exposed to almost 10
commercials per hour of viewing, most for fast foods, soft drinks,
sweets, and sugar-sweetened cereals (5), it is obvious and can be
expected that television may increase demand for these products
more than computer or video game use. In addition, another study
(35) showed that children who increase their consumption of FFA
tend to gain weight. The cohort sample consists of 7,745 girls and
6,610 boys aged 9 to 14 years, at baseline. Results showed that
at baseline, frequency of eating FFA was associated with greater
intakes of total energy, sugar sweetened beverages, and trans fat,
as well as lower consumption of low-fat dairy foods and fruits
and vegetables. Moreover, results showed that adolescents who
increased their consumption of FFA over 1 year gained weight
over and above the expected gain from normal growth and matu-
ration during the adolescent period. The study also observed that
cross-sectionally, adolescents who consumed greater amounts of
FFA were heavier and were more likely to have poorer diet quality.
However, the severe limitations of the study are the following:
a) the researchers measured consumption of FFA and not fast
food consumption or food purchased away from home directly;
b) although they observed cross-sectional and longitudinal associ-
ations between consumption of FFA and BMI, these associations
were inconsistent across age and gender; c) researchers used self-
reported heights and weights to calculate BMI; d) although the
participants in this study came from all 50 U.S. states, ability to
generalise may be limited because the participants are sons and
daughters of registered nurses and the cohort is > 90% white. The
study suggests that eating large quantities of FFA, year after year,
accumulates to larger weight gains that are clinically significant.
Findings from this study suggest that consumption of FFA and
fast foods may have pernicious effects on body weight and diet
quality, and since families may eat dinners together but away
from home in fast food outlets or restaurants, one public health
strategy for promoting adolescent weight maintenance may be to
increase nutrition education for adolescents and their parents on
the importance of a well-balanced diet (35).
Another study (36) examined trends in fast-food consumption
and its relationship to calorie, fat, and sodium intake in black and
white adolescent girls. As it was shown, dietary intake of fast
food is a determinant of diet quality in adolescent girls. In this
longitudinal cohort study 2,379 black and white girls participated.
Fast-food intake was positively associated with intake of energy
and sodium as well as total fat and saturated fat as a percentage
of calories. Fast-food intake increased with increasing age in
both races. With increasing consumption of fast food, energy
intake increased with an adjusted mean of 1,837 kcal for the low
fast-food frequency group versus 1,966 kcal for the highest fast-
food frequency group. Total fat in the low fast-food frequency
group was 34.3% as opposed to 35.8% in the highest fast-food
frequency group. Saturated fat increased from 12.5% to13% and
sodium increased from 3,085 mg to 3,236 mg in the lowest ver-
sus the highest fast-food frequency group. These results suggest
that decreasing fast-food consumption to a lower level could be
a useful strategy for reducing intake of total calories and further
reducing total and saturated fats. However, additional dietary
strategies and changes in the food supply and market may be
needed to reduce dietary sodium (36).
Finally, in developing countries and economies undergoing
transition, many of the same factors may be influencing the deve-
lopment of obesity (8). Thus, the observed trend which combines
a reduced physical activity, with significant changes in food habits
and eating behaviour is of major concern.
There are three critical aspects of adolescence that have an
impact on chronic diseases, as in the case of obesity: (i) the
development of risk factors during this period; (ii) the tracking of
risk factors throughout life; and, in terms of prevention, (iii) the
development of healthy or unhealthy habits that tend to persist
throughout life (17).
This emphasis on the environmental causes of obesity leads to
certain conclusions: first that the treatment for obesity is unlikely
to succeed if we deal only with the child and not with the child’s
prevailing environment, and second that the prevention of obesity
– short of genetically engineering each child to resist weight gain
– will require a broad-based, public health programme (3).
A systematic review (37) suggests that following the assess
ment of the effectiveness of many interventions designed to pre-
vent obesity in childhood and adolescence (individuals aged less
than 18 years old) through diet, exercise, and/or lifestyle and social
support are not effective in preventing weight gain, but can be
effective in promoting a healthy diet and increased physical levels.
The selected studies from 1990–2004 were randomised controlled
trials and controlled clinical trials with minimum duration twelve
weeks. The selected intervention studies employed educational,
health promotion and/or psychological/family/behavioural thera-
py/counselling/management strategies. Twenty-two studies were
included; ten long-term (at least 12 months) and twelve short-term
(12 weeks to 12 months). Nineteen were school/preschool-based
interventions, one was a community-based intervention targeting
low-income families, and two were family based interventions
targeting non-obese children of obese or overweight parents.
Six of the ten long-term studies combined dietary education and
physical activity interventions; five resulted in no difference in
overweight status between groups and one resulted in improve-
ments for girls receiving the intervention, but not boys. Two
studies focused on physical activity alone. Of these, a multi-media
approach appeared to be effective in preventing obesity. Two
studies focused on nutrition education alone, but neither were
effective in preventing obesity. Four of the twelve short-term
studies focused on interventions to increase physical activity
levels, and two of these studies resulted in minor reductions in
overweight status in favour of the intervention. The other eight
studies combined advice on diet and physical activity, but none
had a significant impact (37).
The studies were heterogeneous in terms of study design,
quality, target- population, theoretical underpinning, and outcome
measures, making it impossible to combine study findings using
statistical methods. In addition, there was an absence of cost-ef-
fectiveness data (37). Following the review, the absence of a sound
effectiveness from the intervention studies could be justified by
the fact that the length of time over which interventions are being
conducted is too short to modify weight status (37).
However, it is
worth mentioning to include recognition of the complexity of the
problem and its determinants, the sophistication of the intervention
content, and the research methods required, in order to produce
sound and sustainable outcome changes (37).
The strongest recom-
mendation is that all interventions are accompanied by a carefully
considered evaluation design that enables sufficiently powered
analysis of what is working, or not, and for whom (37). Finally, the
authors recommend that a focus on short-term behaviour change
is unlikely to be sustainable or effective in impacting on weight
status of children and thus not an effective strategy in the absence
of corresponding interventions which would impact on the sus-
tainability of the interventions and a conducive and supporting
environment (37). The reviewed interventions rarely considered
the impact of parents’ and family’s increasingly complex working
and living arrangements, yet the potential for change at the family
level in the absence of addressing supportive strategies, is likely
to be diminished (37).
Authors recommend that stakeholders (families, school
environments, and others) be included in the decision making
regarding the potential strategies to be implemented, and that
a sustained strategy to bring about supportive environments and
behaviour change in physical activity, sedentariness and healthier
food choices is likely to make more of a positive impact than the
interventions identified in this review (37).
There are multiple determinants of what children eat. Among
them are biological influences, parental influences and societal
influences. In order to address childhood obesity, all of these
factors must be considered (38). Furthermore, the available data
on dietary intakes and nutritional status in populations of chil-
dren and adolescents in Europe allow only limited conclusions,
primarily because of a lack of consensus on methodological
approaches used. Dietary studies of food and nutrient intakes
across Europe using agreed and validated methodology would
be of great value since there is a requirement of a consensus
on concepts and approaches, definitions, age groups and other
technicalities (39). Regarding the emphasis on environmental
factors, the reason for corporate interest in school-age children
is clear. McNeal calculated that adolescents aged 12–19 years
spent $170 billion in 2002 (40)
so, it is obvious that children are
It is apparent that the “obesogenic” environment appears to
be largely directed at the adolescent market making healthy choi-
ces thus much more difficult (17). Food is a heavily promoted
commercial product, and children are the targets. In 1997, the
food industry was the second largest advertiser in the USA, with
television as the most popular medium (41). Gallo notes that
much television advertising is also aimed toward people who do
not read newspapers, such as children.
Importantly, these advertisement dollars are spent dispropor-
tionately on highly processed and packaged foods. In 1997, nearly
seven times as much money was spent advertising confectionery
and snacks (i.e. candy, gum, mints, cookies, crackers, nuts, chips
and other salty snacks) than was spent advertising fruits, vege-
tables, grains and beans (41). In the same year, the food industry
spent $7 billion on advertising; this is 21 times the $333 million
spent by the US Department of Agriculture on nutrition education
the same year (41). While children are taught about nutrition in
class, these few days of nutrition lessons can’t possibly compete
with daily exposure to advertising and vending machines outside
the classroom (38). This raises the point that simply educating
parents and children about the importance of good nutrition is
not likely to lead to improved eating behaviour (38). Know-
ledge about nutrition may be less important than what foods are
readily available in the environment. It may be more useful to
teach parents how to implement the nutritional knowledge that
they already have (38). Parents need assistance in creating an
environment where primarily healthful foods are available (38).
If the environment naturally provided exposure to foods that are
consistent with the food guide pyramid, children would adhere
to its principles more easily (38). On the other hand, a question
may arise: “Could physical activity counteract an unbalanced
diet?” There is a clear-cut answer: No, it is not likely. It would
take more than 1–2 h of extremely vigorous activity to counteract
a single large-sized (i.e. ≥ 785 kcal) children’s meal at a fast food
restaurant, and there are few children (or adults) who can maintain
such a pace; moreover, the balance is only worsened if there are
repeated such meals (42).
It seems that we are facing a new health problem, childhood
obesity. Serious and urgent actions need to be taken from public
health policy makers affecting both social and market environment
in order to prevent the upcoming epidemic.
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Received May 22, 2006
Accepted June 30, 2006