Europe’s Obesity Problem

At the recent 2022 European Congress on Obesity, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared obesity rates in Europe have reached epidemic proportions, and that COVID-19 was a key contributor in making the obesity trend worse.

In North America, we tend to think of Europeans as generally healthier & less obese, but that perception may have some flaws. According to the WHO, 59% of European region adults are overweight or obese, and even more disturbing, between 27% – 29% of school-age children are overweight or living with obesity. These statistics are a meaningful increase from 2019.

According to 2019 data from Eurostat statistics, the overweight/obese (BMI >25) adult population of Europe was 53%, with the little island of Malta having the highest percentage of overweight adults at 65%.

Malta As A Microcosm

We hear so much about the Mediterranean diet as a means to healthy living, so it’s strange that Malta, sitting directly in the Mediterranean Sea, leads Europe in this category. But, peel back the onion on why, and some disturbing trends show Malta is really a microcosm of a broader problem across Europe.

In his article 5 Reasons Why Maltese People are Obese, Gianluca Barbara tackles some of the key issues causing this disturbing level of obesity, based on direct surveys from the Maltese population. The list includes:

  1. Cost & availability. Healthy foods are not only more expensive but are tougher to find.
  2. Frequent snacking. Frequent eating becomes an addictive behavior, especially when the foods being consumed are high in carbohydrates/sugar and seed oils.
  3. Lack of interest or time to prepare a cooked meal. Preparing a home-cooked meal takes some time, but ensures better ingredient quality as well as the use of functional ingredients like spices that can help with inflammation.
  4. Takeaway food, delivery and eating out. As the antithesis to point #3, take-out food is quick & requires little preparation, but is typically laden with unhealthy fats (seed oils, poor quality meats), carbohydrates/sugar, and salt. Excessive alcohol consumption is also a risk.
  5. Lack of exercise. While we will never out-exercise a poor diet, exercise does have a range of benefits from a physiological, wellness and cognitive standpoint. Exercise is also vital to creating strong immune system to combat, for example, a virus.

Reversing the Cycle

Those reasons given by the Maltese are not dissimilar to the reasons why Americans, or Mexicans are largely obese, and why obesity is on the rise across the world. The crisis, however, is that globally, we are in a cycle of obesity, where bad information + bad practices + a lack of root cause analysis + a lack of availability + a lack of personal importance placed on health & wellness = obesity epidemic. The more we rely on poorly researched & incorrect information (ie, the American Dietary Guidelines); combined with the enormous use of inflammatory seed oils and sugar in foods; coupled with a belief that weight management is simply a math equation vs. understanding how foods impact hormones, brain receptors, & fat storage signals; exacerbated by the growth of “food deserts” where healthy foods are unavailable (especially to lower-income citizens) which encourages poor eating habits & addictive behaviors; underscored by a sedentary & convenience lifestyle that favors quick & easy vs. quality/time in preparation; the more obesity and chronic health damage we will see. Breaking the cycle takes honest leadership, a true desire to make a difference vs. selling a narrative, and a holistic, ecosystem approach to wellness & nutrition based on sound science.