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Preventing obesity requires interventions throughout the life course and across sectors

Washington, D.C., 15 June 2011 - To be effective, obesity prevention efforts must focus on the entire life course, from the prenatal environment into adulthood, and must involve other sectors besides health, experts said today during the annual meeting of the Global Health Council in Washington, D.C.

 

In a panel discussion on "The importance of nutrition, obesity and exercise in maternal and child health," Dr. Mirta Roses, Director of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), noted that there are 1.5 billion overweight people in the world, 500 million of them obese. Sixty percent are women, and 43 million are children.

Roses noted that the upcoming United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-communicable Diseases, scheduled for September in New York, will provide an unprecedented opportunity for governments to discuss this problem.

"Obesity is not just a problem of developed countries; it is also a problem of developing countries, particularly for the poorest populations," said Roses. Adverse living conditions lead to early malnutrition, which in turn predisposes people to diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. "Developing countries should regard the prevention of malnutrition as a pillar in the prevention of obesity and other non-communicable diseases," Roses said.

She called for a new approach to obesity prevention, which she termed "primordial prevention," which seeks to prevent the emergence and establishment of socio-economic and cultural patterns that contribute to increased risk of disease. This focus must be applied throughout the life course, ensuring optimal nutrition and care starting at conception and guaranteeing access to and availability of healthy food, healthy environments, and opportunities for physical activity. Such efforts must be multisectoral, involving other sectors as well as health.

"If we don't do something now, this can become an economic problem that can affect countries' development," said Dr. Roses.

Aruba's Minister of Health and Development, Richard Visser, agreed that obesity is a development problem that must be addressed across the life course and with a multisectoral approach. Aruba has carried out obesity prevention efforts with PAHO/WHO support, he noted. Last week, Aruba hosted the Pan American Conference on Obesity, which concluded with a declaration calling for new action on obesity, with particular focus on childhood obesity. Visser said the declaration would be presented at the United Nations High-Level Meeting in September.

David Beckmann, of Bread for the World, said efforts to address child malnutrition should focus on mothers and children. Parents should be taught the basics of nutrition and hygiene, while communities should have systems for identifying children with nutrition problems. These issues need to be integrated into countries' health and agricultural systems, he said.

James Whitehead, Executive Director of the American College of Sports and Medicine, called for the involvement of all people and sectors in the creation of healthier lifestyles.

 

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