Childhood Obesity on the Rise in Spain as Adherence to Med Diet Falls

A report by Save the Children highlights Spain's childhood obesity crisis and the rapid decline of the Mediterranean diet. The charity calls for urgent government action.
Lloret de Mar, Spain
By Simon Roots
May. 9, 2022 14:47 UTC

Save the Children, an inter­na­tional non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion, has issued a stark warn­ing about the future of the Mediterranean diet and lifestyle, cit­ing socioe­co­nomic inequal­ity and the Covid-19 pan­demic as sig­nif­i­cant dri­ving fac­tors in its decline.

Mediterranean coun­tries have gone from hav­ing one of the health­i­est diets in the world to one where sweets, fast food and sug­ary drinks have dis­placed fruit, veg­eta­bles, olive oil and fish,” accord­ing to a 64-page report pub­lished last month.

The report’s authors cal­cu­lated that Spain now has one of the high­est child­hood obe­sity rates in Europe, sur­passed only by Cyprus, with almost 20 per­cent of its seven to eight-year-olds being clin­i­cally obese. This is con­sid­er­ably higher than the European aver­age of approx­i­mately 12.5 per­cent.

See Also:New Law in Sicily Protects and Promotes the Mediterranean Diet

As a major part of its research, the orga­ni­za­tion car­ried out a new sur­vey using the National Health Survey of Spain (ENSE) 2017 cri­te­ria to deter­mine the scope of the impact of the Covid-19 pan­demic in this area.

Their analy­sis of the results indi­cated that before the pan­demic, lev­els of excess weight in Spanish chil­dren had slowly begun to decline in line with those of other Mediterranean coun­tries such as Greece and Portugal.

However, the pan­demic, with its con­se­quent move­ment restric­tions in con­junc­tion with the clo­sure of schools and sports facil­i­ties, saw that pos­i­tive trend reverse with a 0.9 per­cent increase in excess weight among under-18s by September 2021.

The authors warned that this increase may even be an under­es­ti­ma­tion, given that pan­demic restric­tions also saw a dra­matic reduc­tion in the num­ber of rou­tine pedi­atric vis­its at which more detailed and accu­rate infor­ma­tion is recorded.

While the pan­demic has clearly impacted the activ­ity, diet and finances of the pop­u­la­tion at large, it accounts for only an iso­lated part of the prob­lem.

The lifestyle and dietary habits of the Mediterranean olive-grow­ing regions have seen hugely sig­nif­i­cant changes in the decades fol­low­ing World War II, with the intro­duc­tion of fast food, the con­sump­tion of large quan­ti­ties of red meats and other harm­ful habits.

In recent years, the trend has accel­er­ated. For exam­ple, the aver­age con­sump­tion of fish and seafood in Spain decreased by approx­i­mately 30 per­cent between 2000 and 2019. The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of car­bon­ated bev­er­ages has also altered the population’s nutri­tional pro­file.

According to the 2019 ANIBES study, the aver­age energy con­sump­tion of the Spanish pop­u­la­tion was 1,810 kilo­calo­ries per diem, of which 12 per­cent was deliv­ered by bev­er­ages.

However, other pop­u­la­tion groups from France and Italy showed a lower pro­por­tion of energy pro­vided by bev­er­ages (8 per­cent and 6 per­cent, respec­tively). Additionally, a sig­nif­i­cant shift among adults toward higher beer con­sump­tion instead of the more tra­di­tional red wine has taken place.

See Also:Health News

Catalina Perazzo, Save the Children’s direc­tor of social and polit­i­cal advo­cacy, said that chil­dren in Sweden are [now] the clos­est to eat­ing a Mediterranean diet in Europe.”

While this phe­nom­e­non is wide­spread, it is espe­cially preva­lent among lower-income house­holds. The 2017 ENSE data revealed that the chil­dren of unskilled work­ers were three times more likely to suf­fer from obe­sity than those of par­ents in man­age­ment posi­tions.

This lat­est report pro­vided more sig­nif­i­cant insights into the root causes of this dis­par­ity by ana­lyz­ing diet qual­ity, phys­i­cal activ­ity, sleep and screen time.

The researchers found socioe­co­nomic sta­tus to be the most sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in all of these areas, most notably those related to phys­i­cal activ­ity.

More than 71 per­cent of high-income house­holds were reported to engage in phys­i­cal activ­ity or sports reg­u­larly com­pared to 41 per­cent of low-income house­holds.

Conversely, while 46 per­cent of chil­dren in low-income house­holds were reported to spend more than five hours a day in front of a screen, the data for high-income house­holds showed nearly 80 per­cent of chil­dren spend­ing less than one hour each day in this way.

A sim­i­lar rela­tion­ship was found in dietary habits, with 18 per­cent of chil­dren from low-income house­holds con­sum­ing con­fec­tionery daily, 5 per­cent con­sum­ing car­bon­ated bev­er­ages daily and 2 per­cent con­sum­ing fast food daily.

The cor­re­spond­ing fig­ures from high-income house­holds were 10 per­cent, 0 per­cent and 0 per­cent, respec­tively.

The authors con­cluded that in house­holds with lower incomes, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of access­ing the food nec­es­sary for a bal­anced diet [and] pay­ing for extracur­ric­u­lar or non-seden­tary leisure activ­i­ties” are reduced.

As a result, they said urgent gov­ern­ment action is needed at the national and regional lev­els to reverse these trends and safe­guard chil­dren’s health and pros­per­ity through­out the coun­try.


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