Study: child obesity problem gains serious weight

  • 2005-06-08
  • By Ksenia Repson
TALLINN - Estonian kids are getting fat. The problem is as simple as that, yet finding a solution is far more complex.

According to a recent study, 7 's 10 percent of Estonia's children are overweight, and although this is one of the lowest percentages among EU member states, it is expected to increase rapidly.

"This problem is like a time bomb, and you must do everything to keep or make your children active," said German scientist Dr. Wolf-Dietrich Brettschneider, who conducted the study. "Remember that fat kids are highly likely to become fat adults with all the risk factors associated with obesity."

In cooperation with their European colleagues, Brettschneider, who teaches at Paderborn University, and Dr. Roland Naul of the University of Duisburg- published their study 's "Study on Young People's Lifestyles and Sedentariness and the Role of Sport in the Context of Education and as a Means of Restoring the Balance" 's in October 2004. The report claimed that 7.1 percent of Estonia's children are clinically obese, while the numbers for Latvia and Lithuania are 6 and 4.4 percent, respectively.

Among EU member states, the percentage of overweight children and adolescents has an epidemic character in Malta, where one-fourth of all adolescents aged 13-15 were registered as corpulent in 2004. In Spain 16.9 percent of children are obese, while U.K. youngsters came in third with 16.4 percent.

Scientists say there are several explanations for the all the extra tonnage, such as genetic predisposition, eating habits and low physical activity. For new EU members, the growing influence of a Western lifestyle plays a significant role.

The study found Estonian children watch TV twice as much as their peers in Central Europe, spending a total of 22.5 hours a week, or 3.2 hours a day, in front of the tube. An increasing trend toward computer games is also a contributing factor, as is a poor diet.

"Fruits and vegetables are often ignored, yet that is not the primary cause of obesity," Brettschneider said. "Theoretically speaking, high energy intake could be compensated by high energy expenditure."

Defining health in broad terms of physical, social and mental well-being, the scientists doubt that EU membership has much to do with the health of young Estonian inhabitants, since the data was collected prior to May 1, 2004, the day of accession.

"I am not sure if it's related to EU membership, but our children were definitely much healthier as recently as three to five years ago," Dr. Tatiana Girinskaja, a pediatrician who has studied hundreds of Tallinn children, said. "Last week I received a patient, a 13-year-old schoolboy, whose weight was 84 kilograms. That is absolutely abnormal for such a young boy!"

Girinskaja said she confronts obese schoolchildren quite often. Parents who are overweight themselves often do not care enough to look after their child's diet, she added.

Merileid Saava, a dietitian from the Estonian Institute of Cardiology, has been studying nutrition among children aged 13 's 15. In her opinion, there is no sign of a fat epidemic in Estonia, unlike in the United States, where she saw obese children with alarming frequency. Estonia's obesity problem lies mostly among rich families, Saava said, and does not concern poor families or those with many children.

"Certain physical and social environments are likely to encourage weight gain, and so are certain groups of young people such as children with physical disabilities, adolescents with type one diabetes, children with psychological problems and children with eating disorders," the German scholars echoed.

However, the total energy intake of children in Europe does not exceed the value recommended by national nutrition organizations. In most cases, the data is close to or even well below the recommended standards, the research showed.

Still, only 73.7 percent of 11 's 15 year-olds in Estonia eat breakfast before school, and those who skip it frequently compensate with fatty snacks. In addition, children and adolescents consume below the recommended amount of breads, cereals and carbohydrates, which are the primary providers of energy, as well as vegetables, which falls 50 percent below a proper daily level.

The consumption of meat and sausages, especially among male adolescents, is far above recommended levels.

Helve Remmel, managing director of the Association of Estonian Food Industry, was quoted by the Postimees daily as saying that a nutrition education program for schoolchildren was being developed. Many experts insist that improper eating habits begin at an early age. In fact, statistics show that only 58 percent of children who began elementary school in Estonia last year were in satisfactory health.

All of these statistics have led German scientists to conclude that the local government, along with the European Commission and other European bodies should work together against the problem. Brettschneider and Naul have suggested that the EU Commission establish a "task force for active living" that would involve scientific experts from all disciplines and all parts of Europe.

So far, small steps have been taken. Tonu Seil, head of the Culture Ministry's sports department, recently told the press that a special program for increasing physical activity among children during their spare time would be ready by autumn. In the meantime, specialists say that parents must take better care to educate and set a healthy example for their children.