The UK and Greece are among the worst countries in Europe for obesity. How do they change things?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged Europe to reverse its “epidemic” of obesity, which it says causes at least 1.2 million deaths a year.

The UN agency says almost 60% of adults and almost a third of children across the continent are overweight or obese. These rates are higher than in any other region of the world except the Americas.

However, the WHO says the tide can be reversed – and two of Europe’s worst-hit countries are already testing promising solutions.

Fight against fatty foods

The WHO has long urged countries to tax sugary drinks and fatty foods to tackle obesity and type 2 diabetes, but governments have been slow to move forward with plans that may prove unpopular. from businesses or low-income households.

Yet there are encouraging signs that change may be afoot, including in the UK, which ranks fourth worst country in WHO Europe’s report on the prevalence of overweight and obesity in adults.

In April, mandatory calorie labeling was introduced for restaurants, cafes and takeaways in England with more than 250 employees.

From October, the government will ban multi-buy offers such as ‘buy one, get one free’ or ‘3 for 2’ on foods and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt. Supermarkets will no longer be allowed to promote unhealthy food and drink in key locations such as store entrances and checkouts.

A new watershed policy restricting the advertising of foods and drinks high in salt, fat and sugar before 9 p.m. on television will also be introduced by 2023.

These policy changes are all recommended by the WHO, which is also urging governments to crack down on the proliferation of take-out outlets in low-income neighborhoods.

One step after another

One Briton who has already successfully changed her eating and lifestyle habits is 50-year-old Londoner Vicki Prais, an independent human rights lawyer.

Prais has lost 33 pounds (15 kg) since late 2019, as she approached the body mass index of 30 that the WHO uses to define people as obese.

Determined to feel healthier and more comfortable with her appearance, she joined the Slimming World weight loss program and started walking 10,000 steps every day – keeping track with a Fitbit wristband – and cooking healthy meals throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I know a lot of people gained a lot of weight during the pandemic. I kind of went the other way and lost weight,” Prais told Euronews Next, noting that the fear of getting a severe case of COVID-19 – for which obesity is a risk factor – was “a bit of a trigger”.

The result, she says, was life-changing.

Prais, who is about 1.65m (5ft 5in) tall, weighed 12 st 9lbs (80kg) in December 2019. She now weighs 10 st 4lbs (65kg).

“Health-wise I feel a lot better, but I also think mentally it has given me a lot more confidence,” she said, adding that it has allowed her to engage more easily with potential customers.

Of course, the temptations remain and her advice to anyone looking to lose weight is to set small, achievable goals and take it one day at a time.

“I used to be a huge take-out fan and probably ate too much ready-made food for my liking. I’m now very careful when buying ready-made meals and look at the saturated fat content before purchase,” said she declared.

She has called the UK’s calorie labeling system ‘a step in the right direction’ and keeps pictures of her former overweight on her kitchen door to keep her focused.

“I never want to be the big Vicki again,” she said.

Healthy eating at school

Unhealthy eating habits are learned early in life and public health agencies are encouraging governments to nip them in the bud.

Almost 30% of children in Europe are overweight or obese, according to the WHO report, leading the health body to urge governments to tackle the promotion of unhealthy food products to young people and limit “the proliferation of sedentary online games”.

In Greece, more than 40% of children are overweight and almost one in five are obese – among the highest rates in Europe.

But for the past decade, a charity has been providing free, nutritionally sound meals to the nation’s most disadvantaged schools in a bid to tackle food insecurity and obesity.

The program, called DIATROFI (“to feed” in Greek), was launched following the country’s sovereign debt crisis and recession, when teachers began to see students fainting for coming to school on an empty stomach.

To date, the initiative has provided more than 17 million free meals to approximately 120,000 students in 800 schools across the country, and has been cited by the WHO as an exemplary way to encourage healthy food choices from the start. early life.

The hearty breakfasts, prepared with the help of nutritionists, are served from 9 am and consist of a sandwich or other healthy pastries, fresh seasonal fruit and white milk or honey yogurt.

Meals are provided free of charge to all students in participating schools, regardless of socio-economic background, to prevent stigma and bullying.

The program also offers educational materials, books, games and other activities for students, their parents and teachers on the subject of healthy eating.

The Prolepsis Institute, which runs the program, says it achieves an average of a 40% reduction in childhood obesity rates and a one-third reduction in overweight levels each year in the schools it serves.

In other words, nearly half of children who start the school year obese no longer fall into this category as summer vacation approaches.

They usually remain overweight, but about 8.5% of obese people lose weight to a normal weight.

“It’s a great effect,” Athena Linos, president of the Prolepsis Institute, told Euronews Next.

“Although from what we know, many children, when they return after the summer, may have gained weight,” she noted.

She said there was still room for improvement when it came to controlling other foods that might enter Greek schools, such as high-sugar soft drinks, as well as limiting TV commercials for unhealthy foods, especially during broadcast programs aimed at children.

Mary I. Bruner