Italy: over 20% of children are overweight, says new report

Italian National Institute of Health/Angela Spinelli

New data from more than 50 000 children in Italy shows the percentage of overweight children in the country is 20.4%, with 9.4% of children considered obese and 2.4% severely obese, when using International Obesity Task Force criteria, and even higher if using WHO growth references.

While the data shows some reduction in the prevalence of overweight children in the past few years, slow progress or even regress in some areas highlight the need for intensification of policies in the country.

1 in 4 consumes fruit and vegetables less than once a day

Despite the progress made, Italy is still among the European countries with the highest values of excess weight among school-aged children.

The latest data highlights that almost 1 in 2 children does not have an adequate breakfast in the morning and 1 in 4 consumes fruit and vegetables less than once a day. Legumes are consumed less than once a week by 38% of children, and nearly half of children eat sweet snacks more than 3 days a week. Approximately 1 in 4 children still drink sugary drinks every day, but out of the listed trends, this is the only one that seems to be decreasing.

The indicators referring to physical activity have been mostly stable over the years. According to the latest results, 1 in 5 children did not exercise the day before the interview, more than 70% did not go to school on foot or by bicycle and almost half spend more than 2 hours a day in front of a television, tablet or mobile phone – a trend which the data shows may be increasing.

“These data give us valuable insights into the trends, and highlight the persistent challenges that we are facing,” says Angela Spinelli, Director of the National Center for Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (CNaPPS) of the Italian National Institute of Health. “The 2019 data show some improvements, with a further reduction of excess weight in children in our country, but they also indicate that there is still a lot to do in terms of promoting healthy lifestyles among children and young people.”

COSI: close monitoring for informed policies

These findings are based on a sample of more than 50 000 children and as many parents, and are the results of the WHO European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI) conducted in 2019 by OKkio alla SALUTE, the surveillance system coordinated by CNaPPS, which has recently been designated a WHO collaborating centre on childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity is a major public health problem globally. The WHO European Region is the region most affected by noncommunicable disease-related morbidity and mortality, and an increasing proportion of children and young people in the Region are living with overweight or obesity. COSI monitors the prevalence of overweight and obesity among school-aged children and produces high-quality data in participating countries every 3 years. It also monitors the diet and physical habits of school-aged children, as well as their school and family environments.

Italy was one of the first countries involved with COSI and has participated in 5 data collection rounds held since 2008. The country also has the greatest number of children involved (more than 40 000 for each survey). In the 4th round of COSI data collection (2015–2017), Italy was among the nations with the highest values of overweight in children, together with other southern European countries.

“We know that bold comprehensive approaches, possibly including the use of price policies, marketing restrictions (particularly in the digital sphere), better school food and more physical activity in schools can work,” says Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases. “It is important that the data collected by these surveillance systems are the basis for choosing better policies aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles in order to improve people’s health and well-being.”

The national surveillance system shows the extent of overweight and obesity and of associated lifestyles in children, which makes it easier to evaluate of the impact of health and school policies undertaken over the years. The consistent monitoring and collection of data allows the country to evaluate and adjust policies efficiently, but monitoring is not enough, effective policies must be implemented for change to happen.

The full results of the 2019 round of COSI data collection in the country can be accessed in Italian. An English summary of key findings is also available.

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