Nutritional education: a major tool in combatting obesity

Obesity is a disease that is on the rise in practically the whole world. Especially concerning is the increase in the prevalence of childhood obesity, which has doubled in the last 30 years. Individual lifestyle changes are not enough to put a stop to this public health problem. Support from families, schools and the community are essential in tackling it.

Picture: Wikimedia commons

Do you want professional advice on how to fight obesity?

The prevalence of obesity has doubled in 73 countries across the world, and has increased consistently in others since 1980. The prevalence of obesity in children has increased from 4% in 1980 to 8% in 2015. In other words, it has doubled.

Childhood obesity is associated with a greater risk of countless health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular disease, as well as premature death in adulthood. For this reason, identifying risk factors that can be modified to prevent childhood obesity has become a public health priority.

Although obesity has an important genetic component, the rapid increase in this problem in recent years is more due to lifestyle changes and the obesogenic environment (which favours obesity). A large variety of environmental, biological, economic, psychological and social factors contribute to the development of obesity and can be targeted by intervention. These include lifestyle factors such as a lack of physical activity, sedentary habits and consuming a high-calorie diet.

The magnitude of the problem and the consequences of obesity on quality of life and the status of health of minors and their families highlight the urgent need to develop programmes that encourage safe weight loss, as well as effective weight control.

Schools, for example, should be a focal point for the prevention of obesity, as nutritional education can result in long-term behavioural changes. A review of scientific studies suggested that incorporating lessons on healthy eating, physical activity and positive body image in the school curriculum was one of the most promising strategies. Nevertheless, other similar studies were non-conclusive.

On the other hand, it has been shown that interventions to reduce obesity in children and adolescents have better results when all members of the family are involved. A recent study showed that the children of women who adhere to a healthy lifestyle have a lower risk of obesity than the children of mothers who don’t follow this kind of lifestyle. These findings highlight the benefits of implementing interventions centred around families, schools and communities.

This happens because the steps necessary to achieve and maintain weight loss, such as sustained restriction of calories and exercise, are difficult to do without continuous support. This support is more easily generated in a social, school or family environment that facilitates healthy eating and physical activity.

An obesogenic environment that includes habits such as spending a lot of time in front of screens, a decrease in physical activity and regular consumption of high-calorie foods is a difficult barrier to overcome. In these cases, maintaining the focus on lifestyle changes within families is a critical step for facilitating positive behavioural changes, which will have a great long-term impact on controlling the weight of the whole family, especially the youngest members.

Author: Violeta Moizé, nutritionist at Hospital Clínic de Barcelona