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Germany

Germany's Migrant Children Tip the Scales

Even as health experts warn that German youngsters are getting fatter, obesity levels continue to climb among the country's migrant children population. Television and fast food aren't the only culprits.

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Can I have your french fries too?

On a sunny August day, ten-year-old Murat (name changed) lies on his back on a grassy lawn at a public outdoor swimming pool in Berlin's Wedding district, home to a large immigrant population.

Licking a chocolate ice cream, Murat, who is of Turkish origin, might sound like a normal youngster, but he doesn't look like one. Clad in an "L" size pair of swimming trunks, the porky fourth-grader tips the scales at nearly 44 kilos (97 lbs.).

"The school authorities said he needs to exercise and lose weight. That's why I take him for a swim here," his mother Ayse (name changed) told DW-WORLD. The ice cream, she said, is a reward for him doing two laps in the pool. "Besides, it's so hot," she added.

Murat, who said his favorite food is Nutella (a chocolate spread), is not alone. In past years, a rise in weight levels among children from Germany's immigrant families, a largely ignored group in obesity research until recently, has fuelled concern among health authorities.

"Sitting on a powder keg"

Renate Künast bei der Eröffnung der Fruit Logistica

German minister Renate Künast is spearheading the drive for healthy nutrition to bring down obesity levels.

The German Minister for Consumer Protection and Agriculture, Renate Künast, estimated this year that every fifth child and every third teenager in Germany is overweight. The number of obese children signing up for school has risen three-fold compared to a decade ago. "The country is sitting on a powder keg," Künast warned.

Though there are no country-wide studies on the prevalence of obesity among migrant children, statistics on the problem in cities with high foreign populations leave little room for doubt.

In Frankfurt, home to around 180,000 immigrants from 180 nations, research on the number of those children who joined school this year found that 12.5 percent were overweight.

Experts say that a six-year-old who has a body mass index of 15.4 is considered of normal weight. The Frankfurt statistics showed that Moroccan and Turkish children, in particular, had a body mass index of more than 18 percent, at 18.4 and 22 percent respectively. Among ten-year-olds, Turkish children weighed the most at 34 percent, compared to 19 percent for German youngsters.

Eating to the point of disorder

"It's alarming," Holger Meireis, head of Frankfurt's Child and Youth Department told DW-WORLD. "If you interpret immigration in a broad sense, beyond borders of nationality, then almost 50 percent of Frankfurt's foreign population is overweight. It can't be ignored any longer."

Betende Muslime in Kreuzberg

Neukölln is home to a large Muslim population.

Dr Rainer Moehl, a physician in Neukölln, an immigrant-dominated Berlin neighborhood, agreed that obesity was a widespread problem among his patients. "By the time children in Turkish and Arab families reach school-going age, there's usually a clear gender-specific difference: it's mostly boys who develop obesity during puberty, while girls have eating disorders like bulimia," Moehl said.

He warned that overweight children are likely to develop problems such as mobility and spinal and metabolic disorders, high blood pressure, diabetes and depression.

Filling the stomach cheaply

Dicker Mann von hinten

Experts warn that low income and education levels can have disastrous consequences for obese people.

While experts point to the usual suspects -- too much television, too little activity, fast food and sweets -- they agree that the spread of obesity among migrant children is largely tied to their financial and social situation.

Jeffrey Butler from the Health Department in Berlin's Wedding district, which holds the dubious record of being home to Berlin's pudgiest kids (20.7 percent body mass index), points to the fact that the neighborhood is also one of the capital's poorest.

With an unemployment rate of around 24 percent, low education levels and around 26 percent of children and teenagers living on welfare, Wedding has acquired notoriety as a social flashpoint.

"Most of the families here don't have the means to buy healthy food, even if they wanted to," Butler said. "It's just easier to shop for packaged and fast food that fills you up."

Calories and stress

Others caution that the problem has much more complex cultural reasons.

Türken in Deutschland Döner Metzgerei

Preparations in a Döner shop in Berlin. Meat is a staple among Turks.

"The common family meal is the focal point in a Turkish home, and traditional Turkish cuisine is actually healthy," Jutta Kolletzki, a therapist who runs a counseling and treatment center for weight-loss and eating disorders in Frankfurt, said. "But meals are cooked with so much sugar and fat that it turns into a real calorie bomb," she said.

Kolletzki added that many immigrants often aren't well-informed about what constitutes healthy nutrition. Differing perspectives of health also contribute to the problem, she said. "In traditional families, a tubby child is usually considered well-fed and a sign of prosperity rather than as a problem," Kolletzki explained.

She also warned that children straddling two cultures are often under a lot of emotional stress. "Separations or moving from one country to another is difficult for a child," she said. "Eating more is a way of coping with it."

Battle of the bulge

Dicke Kinder Übergewicht trainieren am Strand

Children take part in a weight-loss program at Germany's Baltic Sea coast.

Obesity among migrant children is now recognized as a serious problem, judging by the number of initiatives and projects springing up in several German cities to tackle it.

Most involve networking with kindergartens and schools to encourage them to introduce healthy breakfasts and impress upon the kids and parents the benefits of a healthy diet and exercise. The emphasis is on prevention, taking into account cultural differences and using interpreters to reach the target groups.

Minister Künast is kicking off a major nationwide project in September involving parents, health insurance companies and the food industry. A spokeswoman at the ministry stressed that though this wasn't a special programs for migrant children as yet, they were working on it.

Germany, it seems, is determined to win the battle of the bulge and avoid the rather drastic scenario predicted in a recent British survey, which suggested that the younger generation would be the first to die before their parents. "It shouldn't go as far as that," said Künast.

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