Region needs to act on growing obesity, experts say

19/11/2012

The global obesity pandemic is sweeping through Southeast Europe, experts warn, pointing to lack of physical activity and poor diet as the main culprits.

By Katica Djurovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 19/11/12

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Obesity is a quickly growing trend in Southeast Europe, experts say. [AFP]

For Podgorica resident Ljiljana Radicevic, 54, it is hard to imagine life without extra kilos.

Since her early 20s, after she got married, she started having problems with her weight. After giving birth to two children it got worse, and today Radicevic weighs about 110 kilos. Both of her children are overweight as well.

"I know it is bad for my health to have so many kilos, but diets don't work. I don't have the money for expensive diets or healthy food and balancing between raising the children and being a housewife at the same time, doesn't really help," Radicevic told SETimes.

Radicevic is part of the rising and worrying obesity trend hitting Southeast Europe.

Despite many programmes to fight obesity, people living in the region are heavier than ever before, experts said at the first regional obesity conference held in Zlatibor Mountain in Serbia last month.

Participants concluded that it is necessary to invest in the future of obesity prevention, and stressed the importance of education about the negative aspects of obesity.

"Doctors in Serbia follow international trends in fighting obesity, but the government and food industry have to do more. Regulation on sugar and fat levels in food, especially food for children, should be a focus for the future anti-obesity measures," Dragan Micic, vice president of the European Association for the Study of Obesity, told SETimes.

As in the rest of the world, lack of physical activity and poor nutrition are the key factors responsible for rise of obesity in the region, health experts said.

"Obesity is defined as abnormal fat accumulation which may cause many health problems such as blood pressure, heart attacks, diabetes. Obesity means having body mass index (BMI) over 30. It is an index of weight-for-height that is used to classify overweight and obesity in adults," Dr Jelena Gudelj-Rakic, food specialist at the Institute for Public Health of Serbia, told SETimes.

According to experts, over the last two decades, prevalence of obesity in Europe has tripled.

"Modern way of life, characterised by long work days, huge distances between the home and work and irregular meals, is the main reason for diseases such as obesity," Belma Acic-Buturovic, from the University Clinical Centre in Sarajevo, told SETimes.

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Poor nutrition is one of the main causes of the widespread weight gain. [AFP]

"It is hard – to balance between exams, lectures and to eat healthy food at the same time. Most of the day I am out and when I simply get what is easiest to prepare," Skopje student Ognen Ivanovski told SETimes.

For some though, the economic situation comes into play. "I pay attention to the meals for the kids. I try to include as much as healthy products as possible, but with these prices it is not always easy," Ivana Trajkovska, a mother of two in Macedonia, told SETimes.

Experts in the region agree that the fight against obesity can be successful only through a joint effort within society: healthcare service, food industry, education and media. Since obesity cannot be cured or "healed," the most efficient and most important factor is prevention.

For the past few years, Turkey's Health Ministry has been conducting an ambitious campaign against the rising trend of obesity in the country. Among planned measures to take effect: restaurants and bakeries will be obliged to provide the caloric content of meals, while the high content of sugar in fruit drinks and carbonated beverages will be indicated by specific labels.

Turkan Dagoglu, vice chairman of Turkey's parliamentary commission for health, thinks that the government policy against obesity has been successful in raising awareness about the health effects of overweight.

If the families of newborn children have no sufficient knowledge about the obesity, they cannot give good instruction to their babies and can inevitably open the door for them to turn their diet into fast-food, Dagoglu told SETimes.

"So, it is of the utmost importance to provide people with necessary conscience and understanding about what it means, and how it can impact the whole life quality of a person. On the other hand, the family practitioners who follow up the health indicators of all citizens should bear much more responsibility against this rising trend, and encourage people to have an active lifestyle and to give attention to their diet," she said.

In 2010, the World Heath Organisation released the results of health surveys taken in 2008 and 2009. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Croatia were both listed in the top 10 fattest countries in the world in the past decade. BiH hit the list at number six, with 62.9 percent of its citizens being overweight. Croatia ranked ninth, with a 61.4 percentage.

According to a study by the Institute for Public Health of BiH, the eating habits of the country's citizens are poor: about one-quarter of the population eats fruit and/or vegetables daily. Only 15 percent of the population excersises once in a week.

The situation is Serbia is similar. According to the Institute for Public Health, more than 50 percent of the country is slightly overweight, 37 percent are overweight and 18 percent are obese.

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The epidemic is also affecting children. [AFP]

"In only 20 years, number of overweight and obese people tripled in Serbia. Malnutrition was, until a few decades ago, the main problem in children, but today the main problem is obesity with over 18 percent of children being obese," Gudelj-Rakic said.

According to a survey conducted by the Serbian Ministry of Health, about 33 percent of children spend an average of three hours at the computer daily, while 25 percent play sports.

"The high prevalence of overweight and obesity is a significant public health problem among Serbian adults. Efforts are needed to effectively promote daily physical activity and healthy eating through progressive modifications in lifestyle and the creation of supportive environments," Aco Gajevic, assistant director at the Institute for sport medicine in Serbia, told SETimes.

In 2009, the Serbian Institute for Sport Medicine, in co-operation with Ministry of Youth and Sport, launched an initiative to get Serbs on their feet.

The project, called "What's Your Sport?" is an event that travels across the country and provides local sports clubs a platform to promote their sport, and stress the importance of sport, healthy food and life. The whole town is invited to try out the sports and get active. Doctors are also on hand to give nutritional and health advice.

Specialists said obesity is also turning into a major issue in Romania.

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"The most worrying fact is the alarming growth of infantile obesity, affecting two out of five children, mostly due to a disorderly alimentary behavior in their families. These kids are the most vulnerable segment of society and are certain candidates to [develop] severe heart diseases later," Gheorghe Mencinicopschi, director of the Bucharest-based Food Research Institute, told SETimes.

Unfortunately, authorities do not take the matter seriously, Mencinicopschi said.

"Though obesity is the most spread nutrition related disease, Romania doesn't have a national nutrition plan, unlike most of the European states. Obesity should be ranked as a public health problem and authorities come up with a prevention plan."

SETimes correspondents Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest, Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje, Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul and Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo contributed to this article.

This content was commissioned for SETimes.com.
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