EU Science Hub

World Obesity Day: 23% of adults in the EU live with obesity, another 36% with pre-obesity – a silent health crisis

The onset of obesity is caused by multiple and inter-related genetic, behavioural, physiological, environmental, psychological and social factors
The onset of obesity is caused by multiple and inter-related genetic, behavioural, physiological, environmental, psychological and social factors.
Mar 04 2021

To mark World Obesity Day, the JRC is launching a newly dedicated section on obesity in its Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway.

The section contains facts and figures as well as policy guidelines on the prevention of obesity and related illnesses.

The first set of facts and figures published today shows more than half a million deaths each year in the EU can be attributed to a higher than ideal body mass index (BMI). Almost 60% of EU adults had high BMI in 2016.

At the same time, 19-29% of the adult population across different EU Member States - almost 1 in 4 adults in the EU, is affected by obesity, with a slightly higher rate among men than women.

Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth: “Obesity is one of the most significant silent health risks of today. We need to address its causes, and to prevent people living with obesity from developing other non-communicable, but life-threatening diseases. The scientific data gathered by the Joint Research Centre will significantly contribute to the policy process in place, to find the best measures to address this health problem.”

A complex and costly health condition

Obesity is a complex medical condition defined by the excessive build-up of body fat. This chronic relapsing disease can act as a gateway to a range of other non-communicable diseases.

EU member states spend almost 7 percent of their budgets on treating health conditions related to it, such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer. Including healthcare expenditure and dropping productivity, costs related to obesity soar to a yearly EUR 70 billion in the EU.

The onset of obesity is caused by multiple and inter-related genetic, behavioural, physiological, environmental, psychological and social factors.

Poor diets consisting of high-energy processed meals, sugary soft drinks, as well as the reduced intake of fruits, vegetables and other fibre-rich foods were identified as possible causes for the onset and aggravation of obesity.

Alongside this are genetic susceptibility, environmental influences affecting development and biology, or physiological circumstances, such as insulin resistance.

Research also points to sedentary lifestyles and belonging to lower socioeconomic groups as risk factors for obesity.

Breastfeeding, in turn, was shown to reduce susceptibility to developing obesity in adulthood.

The JRC’s Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Knowledge Gateway

In its Knowledge Gateway, the JRC summarises the strategies and national guidelines in place in EU countries for the primary prevention of pre-obesity and obesity.

These include national dietary and physical activity guidelines, restricting marketing aimed at children, making the healthy option the most straightforward one in schools, and providing information to citizens through food and menu labelling or public awareness campaigns. 

Such guidelines could inspire EU countries in their common effort to reduce the burden of obesity.

JRC science to tackle obesity

The JRC has been working closely with member states through the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity to prevent obesity early on. The strategy aims, inter alia, to promote healthy environments, especially in schools, and to encourage physical activity.

As part of this project, the JRC designed a toolkit to enable the development of codes of conduct on the marketing of food and beverages, reducing the exposure of children to unhealthy items.

The JRC also offered guidance on the public procurement of food in public institutions, and devised a framework for the monitoring of sugar content.

Finally, the JRC is currently updating its literature review on front-of pack nutrition labelling schemes to facilitate the Commission’s initiative of a harmonised EU-wide scheme.

All these initiatives aim at empowering citizens to make healthy choices as well as incentivising the food industry to provide healthier options to the public. 

The European Union’s commitment

The Commission is addressing the challenge of obesity together with the Member States through the Steering Group on Health Promotion, Disease Prevention and Management of Non-Communicable Diseases.

The key aim is to support implementation of best practices on the ground and by monitoring policy developments to foster public health investments at the EU level. Stakeholders are invited to submit best practice proposals via the EU best practice portal by 14 March.

Research and innovation is a crucial element to develop concrete solutions in order to prevent the preventable, treat the treatable and increase the wellbeing of people living with obesity.

Strong support has been provided for obesity research through EU Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation. Horizon 2020 invested more than EUR 200 million in projects to understand the multifaceted aspects of obesity.

Examples include the EU-funded project SOPHIA that aims to provide evidence for the disease heterogeneity and identify predictors of response to different treatments.

Another project, SWEET, examines the risks and benefits of using sweeteners in the context of obesity.

The RESOLVE project uses a digital approach to identify drug molecular targets that can support therapeutic strategies. Other EU-supported projects such as the GOLIATH, OBERON, EXPANSE or LONGITOOLS study how the exposure to certain chemicals influences metabolic diseases, including obesity, and how such exposure can hinder effective treatment.

It is planned to pursue the support under Horizon Europe through research into how to promote health, prevent and tackle diseases, and grow the body of evidence on which sound and effective public health policies can be built.

More on EU funded research into obesity

Obesity: EU research battles the bulge

‘Teenagers are going to be the ones to beat childhood obesity’