Young Scots are eating more sweets than their UK counterparts but drinking less fizzy juice than they did 15 years ago, according to the latest research from the University of St Andrews.
In a new international study into the health and wellbeing of young people around the world, adolescent Scots were also found to be taking part in more vigorous activity.
The findings are part of an international WHO (World Health Organisation) report into childhood obesity to be presented at a major meeting in Portugal today (Wednesday 17 May 2017). The report examined the behaviours of young people in European regions over a 12 year period (2002–2014).
The study – co-ordinated by Dr Jo Inchley at St Andrews – found persisting inequalities and a rise in obesity among young people in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe.
On average, the report suggests that 4 per cent of adolescents are obese which equates to over 1.4 million young people across Europe. Obese children are at greater risk of type 2 diabetes, asthma, sleep difficulties, musculoskeletal problems and future cardiovascular disease, as well as school absence and psychological issues such as low self-esteem, depression and social isolation.
Dr Inchley is the HBSC (Health Behaviour in School-aged Children) International Coordinator and Assistant Director of the Child and Adolescent Health Research Unit (CAHRU) at the University of St Andrews.
She said: “Within the UK, we found an overall decline in the consumption of sweets and sugary soft drinks, which is encouraging, but a third of Scottish adolescents still eat sweets or chocolates every day, compared to a quarter of adolescents in England and Wales.
“The reductions in consumption of sugary drinks amongst young people in Scotland is good news however further action is required to reduce their sugar intake, particularly in light of the wide range of sugar-sweetened drinks now available and actively marketed to children and adolescents.”
While the recommended level of daily physical activity remains stubbornly low in most European countries, recent increases in vigorous physical activity among Scottish adolescents suggest that more young people may be taking part in sport in their free time.
Dr Inchley continued: “These increases have occurred among girls as well as boys, reducing the gender gap in participation. Inequalities still persist, however, with lower levels of participation among young people from less affluent backgrounds.”
The WHO report highlights persisting inequalities in obesity among young people across Europe, with younger adolescents, boys and those living in families of lower socioeconomic position being more likely to be obese.
The study also found that, as they get older, young people eat less fruit and vegetables, suggesting that, as they gain greater independence and autonomy over their eating behaviour, adolescents are less likely to make healthy choices.
Other findings include girls reporting healthier eating habits, but also sharp increases in computer use.
The study’s authors say that given the large cohort of obese children in many countries by the age of 11, action is required at earlier life stages.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, commented: “Despite sustained efforts to tackle childhood obesity, one in three adolescents is still estimated to be overweight or obese in Europe, with the highest rates found in southern European and Mediterranean countries. What is of particular concern is that the epidemic is on the rise in eastern European countries, where historically rates have been lower.
“Ambitious policy action is required to reach the Sustainable Development Goal to halt the increase in childhood obesity. Governments must target efforts and break this harmful cycle from childhood into adolescence and beyond.”