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Rising EU obesity rings alarm bells in Brussels

Half of EU citizens are overweight. Among these people, serious obesity is on the rise. It's a heavy and expensive burden for national health care systems - and one the EU Commission hopes to stop.

For decades, EU member states have seen obesity levels rise. The UN and World Health Organization (WHO) are now sounding the alarm. Obesity, their recent report says, is becoming an epidemic.

Hungary leads the most recent European statistics, followed closely by Great Britain, Ireland and Malta. In these countries, roughly every fourth citizen is seriously overweight. Throughout Europe, obesity is putting huge strains on national health care systems. Chronic diseases such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers are further exacerbated by obesity.

An orange and yellow bar graph shows the most obese EU countries at the bottom, and the least obese at the top (2013_05_15_fettleibigkeit_EU.psd)

Solutions from Brussels?

The EU Commission sees a need for action. "Even if health care policy falls under the jurisdiction of individual member states, the EU Commission, together with EU member states, would like to fight obesity," said Reinhard Hönighaus, spokesperson for the German delegation of the European Commission, in an interview with DW.

Reinhard Hönighaus smiles at the camera in a professional photograph. (Photo: no info)

Hönighaus sees EU solutions to obesity problems facing member states

The EU Commission already provides the financial means for EU-wide projects that encourage healthy eating, said Hönighaus. Well-known projects include the distribution of fruit and milk to schools as well as the annual "European Obesity Day" on the third Saturday of every May. Numerous events take place on that day, each aiming to place obesity in the public spotlight.

For the EU Commission, children are the target audience. "They're more receptive to activities and information on healthy eating," said Hönighaus. "That leads to a lasting change in eating habits."

A social question

But for Stefanie Gerlach, the spokesperson for the German Obesity Society (DAG), current measures fall short.

"Explanations and information campaigns alone aren't enough in areas hit by obesity," she told DW.

In Germany, rising levels of obesity in adults makes it clear, Gerlach believes, that other approaches are necessary. When it's always easier to find unhealthy nutrition, she says, unhealthy behaviors are picked up rather quickly. "A BMI of over 30 means you're dealing with a disease requiring treatment."

For decades, Germany has been promoting a variety of initiatives to fight obesity. But none appear to have had a positive effect, the nutrition expert said.

Nutrition labels

Dr. Stefanie Gerlach smiles at the camera. (Photo: no info)

Gerlach wants to help others avoid obesity through improved information

It's with regard to children specifically that Hönighaus sees a need for increased intervention by the EU Commission. "Just as it was before, obesity in Europe continues to be a growing problem. There are estimates that the number of overweight individuals is increasing by 1 million per year. We can't be satisfied with that."

Hönighaus believes that through advertisements and marketing, diets, especially those of children, are strongly influenced. One step toward better informing those children is through the improved labeling of nutritional values. The EU Commission has already passed laws establishing daily calorie intake labels on food packaging.

Gerlach would like to go a step further. She supports a ban on marketing that targets children and that advertises fattening products. She would also like to see a nutritional label that's easier to understand.

"We have products that are overflowing with information and nutritional tables," she said. "But people still don't know how to make anything out of it."

What's missing, she believes, is a structured combination of behavioral prevention and a healthier revamping of local environments. Only then, she feels, can the problem be addressed.

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