Slovakia weighs up obesity problem

Health officials says obesity is one of the most serious public health problems in Europe - It increases the risk of many chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and certain cancers. The increase of childhood obesity is particularly worrying - it's estimated that one in five children living in the EU is overweight. The European Commission has been pressing member states to do something about it so the Slovak government is setting up a national plan to fight child obesity. So how serious is child obesity in Slovakia?

Jana Novakova, is the Head of the Department for Children Hygien in the Slovak Office for Public Health. Her team help set up a national standard to measure children weight in Slovakia. It is based on a detailed nationwide study of school age children.

"About 12.5 percent of boys and 12.1 percent of girls are overweight and 7.8 percent of boys and 6.9 percent of girls are obese. Generally there is a tendency for teenage boys to gain weight and for teenage girls to loose weight because they are influenced by trends in lifestyle that promote a slim bodyshape."

Novakova's team concluded that Slovakia is not faced with an epidemic of child obesity for the time being. Her colleague Katarina Hulanska who leades the Department in charge of developing educational programmes to improve public health, says that a healthy lifestyle contributes 40 percent to Slovaks' well being. She led a team who had investigated the lifestyle of a representative sample of 5,500 Slovak children.

"31,5 percent of children exercise 2-3 hours daily and 46 percent of them spent the same amount of time in front of the TV everyday. 40 percent of children play computer games for at least two hours daily."

Hulanska's team was interested in finding out whether children eat enough fruits and vegetables. Currently the standard in Slovakia is for 350 grammes daily and the European Commission would like to see at 400 grammes.

"Our figures say a lot about how parents and school canteens are not respecting the current norm. Only 27 percent of children eat fruits and vegetables daily. At the same time 44 percent eat sweets everyday."

In November 2006 the European Union launched an action plan to fight against obesity that includes putting pressure on food companies to take steps to make their products more weight friendly. Major companies joined project, at least on paper. Well, what products do come to your mind when thinking about food and drinks that might help you put on some weight? Coke, hamburgers, chips. CEOs of the big multinationals that annualy make around 150 billion euro from selling them to you now claim that they have become committed fighters against obesity. Dominique Reiniche, Coca Cola's President and Chief Operating Officer for the European Union says her company introduced strict measures in this respect.

"We have submitted several very concrete commitments to the EU platform ranging from on pack nutrition information and active lifestyle programmes to increasing the variety of low- calory products in the market. We pledged not to place any marketing communication in print media, websites or during broadcast programmes aimed at children under 12. We have also committed not to engage in direct commercial activity in primary schools unless specifically requested by school authorities. We are enacting strict guidelines to limit brabd presetns and aslo expand choice in secondary schools. I won't say it's easy. It's not, as our industry is large and varied and changing behaviour requires frankly time and dedication."

Nutritionists have praised the efforts aimed at offering consumers more accurate information about the content of a certain product. But including such data on the label is not enough to keep consumers healthy. People should also read it and according to public health experts not so many bother to do that, at least in Slovakia.