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WHO report reveals major health disparities between European teens

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WHO report reveals major health disparities between European teens

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Based on information from 44 countries that engaged in the Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) study, it highlights unhealthy eating habits, increasing levels of overweight and obesity and low levels of physical activity in young people.

According to WHO, each of these are “significant risk factors for a range of noncommunicable diseases including cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer.”

Unhealthy eating

The report showed that adolescents substantially chose unhealthy food options, with more than half of them – 56 per cent of boys and 51 per cent of girls aged 15 – reporting not eating fruits or vegetables every day.

On a more positive note, soda consumption saw a major decline since children were last studied in 2018, however, it remains that 15 per cent of adolescents consume soda every day with higher rates who are from less affluent families.

Programme Manager of Child and Adolescent Health at WHO/Europe Dr. Martin Weber said: “The affordability and accessibility of healthy food options are often limited for families with lower incomes, leading to a higher reliance on processed and sugary foods, which can have detrimental effects on adolescent health.”

Obesity and physical inactivity

The effects of lower socioeconomic status carried over in terms of the likelihood of being overweight or obese, with one in five children being affected.

While WHO recommends young children having at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity (MVPA) per day, the report found that adolescents from more affluent families experienced higher levels of MVPA daily – 16 per cent versus 26 per cent.

The organisation said this is likely because youth from low-income families may have less access to “safe spaces for physical activity and participation in organised sports may be influenced by family income.”

Dr Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, said that the “socioeconomic disparities in adolescent health behaviours contribute to a vicious cycle of disadvantage.”

Dr. Kluge said the findings from the report should signal a need for interventions for adolescents that will push them to adopt healthier behaviours.

Recommendations and assistance

WHO is calling for Member States to take urgent action to address these behaviours in adolescents.

The organisation recommends countries implement regulations relative to regulating food marketing, promoting healthier eating, increasing physical activity and addressing social inequalities.

Dr. Weber said that addressing adolescent health will take “a combination of individual, family, community and policy-level interventions.” He said there is a need for environments that support healthy choices in young people.

Dr. Kluge agreed, adding that by “addressing the underlying factors that contribute to unhealthy behaviours, creating an epidemic of inequality, we can improve the health and well-being of young people, reduce health disparities and build a healthier future for all.”

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