The Word Health Organization (WHO) reports that obesity has almost doubled worldwide since the 1980s, so that almost 7 out of 10 people on the planet now live in a country where being overweight and obese kills more people than being underweight. The available data suggests this is is a global problem, affecting both the developed and developing world alike.

In an earlier debate on the EU’s agricultural policy, we had a suggestion sent in from Christos from Greece about cutting back on food wastage:

Perhaps we should start closing a lot of the fast food chains [the US] created and spread all over the world! Who needs to eat beef burgers on a daily basis anyway?

Which suggests this might be more of an American issue, and less important for Europeans. However, despite the stereotype of “sturdy” American bodytypes, this is indeed a problem that affects us here in the EU. According to US government figures, more than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) are obese. European numbers are only slightly better, with the WHO reporting that roughly 23% of women and 20% of men were obese in Europe.

To get a better idea about the issue, we spoke to Jean-Michel Borys from EPODE, the obesity prevention network. We asked him whether obesity was less of an issue in Europe than the US:

We also put a comment to Jean-Michel Borys from Catherine, who argued that the problem is not the amount of food that people are eating, but the quality of that food. Catherine argues that food today is full of steroids, chemicals and low nutritional content.

Next, we put Catherine’s comment to Richard Seeber, an Austrian MEP with the centre-right European People’s Party group and a member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety in the European Parliament.

What do YOU think? Is obesity just a problem for the US, or is it also something we need to tackle in Europe? And how can we encourage people to eat healthy and exercise more without nannying them? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts to hear their reactions.

85 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    catherine benning

    You could do this overnight if it is the people you are worried about.

    Remove the contamination from fast food. or, better close down all fast food joints where they sell chemical infested foods. The people are getting fat because of what they are eating, not, how much they are eating.

    You only have to look at the US to see that. And then at the UK since they have been inundated with Pizza huts, McDonald’s burgers and so on. GM food and animals filled with hormones and steroids.



    But of course these corporations are big money making concerns and it doesn’t matter how they are making the population sick, they cannot be stopped can they? No, they may up and pull out of our countries and take their money to the Cayman islands.


  2. avatar
    Christos Mouzeviris

    Promote the healthy Mediterranean diet… Fish, seafood, vegetables, salads and fruit.. Together of course with meat of all sources…

    I remember when I was a kid, my mother was giving us fruit (apples, tangerines, oranges, bananas, kiwis, grapes) as a candy when we were all watching TV… Not sweets and confectionery… Perhaps that will be another addition to European diet..

    And of course, cut down on the consumption of meat… We do not need to eat meat every day…

  3. avatar
    Tiago Mouta

    Stop working, avoid stress, junk food, long traffic commuting… Eat less, more vegetables, more water, more walking :D

  4. avatar
    Cris Hova

    I have an idea…high prices for junk food, sweets, high fats:P…low prices for fruits and vegetables…

  5. avatar
    Ray Winter

    Put a Tax on the amounts of Fat/Oil, Salt and Sugar used in pre-prepared and Fast Foods. Let the people decided for themselves how much Salt and Sugar they want to put onto the food they purchase and use advertising to advise on the best limits.

  6. avatar

    Educate people about the food they eat and how bad most of it is.
    Regulate the food industry so that more natural ingredients are used and not chemicals. Increase taxes for fast food chains.
    Encourage people , starting with the kids, to practice more sports, spend time surrounded by nature and not spending 5 hours in front of the TV.
    I think we can all see the future and it is not a bright sight. More and more kids are obese, eating at fast-food almost on a a daily basis, drinking coke and Pepsi instead of water and candy when they should eat fruits.

  7. avatar

    Attention should be focused on food and health education. Schools should have more gym classes. Also fast food chains should have increased taxes or introduce healtier menus. Regulate the amount of fast food products on the market (introduce a maximun amount legally allowed per annum and per capita). Solutions are multiple, action is what is missing from the ecuation.

  8. avatar
    Pedro Celestino

    That is being tackled in the south europe quite well…

    Anyway some sugestions:

    1: Lower the price of healthy food (how can soy cost more than meat if it is used to feed the cows?);

    2: Give more time and better conditions for a active life (reforce local distribuition, tax on gyms, more green/open spaces, public equipments for active fun…);

    3: Education;

    4: Help developing alternatives to the tech that need someone to be sit (leapmotion.com have some cool things).

  9. avatar
    Nikolaos Sotirelis

    So that what is all about. I had misunderstood it. The austerity must be finally an obesity vanishing program.Here at South We have to thank our Northern allies, for their caring and their protective policy!

  10. avatar

    Nikolaos, if you don’t like our medicine, you and your country can always get out of the Euro. Ironically, Greece would be massively better off outside the Euro. Why do you want to stay in anyway? Or is it that your politicians fear losing their plush income-tax-exempt Brussels jobs on Eurosoviet level?

    I take it you think solidarity means that we pay and you get?

    As for food, there should be a blanket ban on any chemical additives. Examples like McDonalds ‘cheese’ which is not cheese at all but some chemical substance with artificial color made to look like cheese.

    Also, ban excessive animal cruelty like with foie gras, or sticking tons of chickens on a square meter. These things shouldn’t ever be allowed. If people want to eat meat, so be it, but at least let the animal have a semi-decent life, not perpetually locked inside with no room to move.

    Adding sugar and other taste enhancers that serve no purpose should also not be allowed, this is the trick how the fast food joints hook young kids on soft drinks and all that.

  11. avatar

    And also, all food should be locally prepared. There’s no point in shipping food halfway across the globe. Stop this madness. Take the horse meat scandal. This can be prevented simply by not having cross border meat transfers or stupid EU ‘abattoir rules’ which also contributed to the mess.

  12. avatar
    Bill Riedel

    Two things:
    1. Outlaw all exercise equipment that uses electricity (except for medical rehabilitation) and design excercise equipment that generates electricity. (take a look at recent developments in bicycle electricity generators using images on google)
    2. Start thinking about carbon dioxide trading at the personal level – in other words every person has an allotment and if their activities produce more they need to buy it from those who don’t use their allotment.

  13. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    Para reduzir a obesidade dos cidadãos europeus só temos uma solução é opinião de cada cidadão europeu se voçê vai ao seu médico de familia e ele manda reduzir a alimentação é porque alguma coisa esta mal no seu corpo agora a partir desta opinião do médico voçê têm a chave da sua saude segundo os governos comentam os jornais comentam a sociedade também comenta mas voçê têm a chave da sua saude Eu tenho a chave da minha saude quando ando a trabalhar como menos e como mais legumes e mais água e ando a pé ou de bicicleta

  14. avatar
    Paul X

    I would question what has this got to do with the EU why should EU funds be spent on issues like this?
    Every country has its own cuisine and culture, you won’t stop the Germans eating Sausages, the British eating chips or the Belgians eating Chocolate so stop trying to tell everyone in Europe “we must eat healthy”
    It is a national problem to be addressed at a national level. In the UK obesity causes great problems for our National Health Service but that is a UK problem and the UK will address it using UK funds as necessary. There is no “European Health Service” suffering because of an Eu wide obesity epidemic so stop wasting EU taxpayers money on an issues which do not justify it
    Countries with an obesity issue are best placed to sort it themselves and those without obesity issues should not be concerned

  15. avatar

    Let’s bring a bit of structure into this debate. To tackle obesity you could pull levers along the whole “value chain” of getting obese (assuming that unhealthy food and calorie consumption are the main causes of obesity):
    1. Production of unhealthy food
    2. Marketing of unhealthy food
    3. Buying/consumption of unhealthy food
    4. Effect of unhealthy food on people

    Here are a couple of ideas for each step:
    1. Production: similar to carbon emission you could tax a companies’ “calorie emission” or grassy fats. However, such a scheme probably need’s a bit more thought and I’d assume that this could easily be circumvented
    2. Marketing:
    – Similar to “tobacco ads” each billboard of a burger could say “Eating fast food kills” + display a picture of some organs damaged by fatty food
    – You could ban fast food chains from putting billboards along the motorway (as I assume that these trigger people to feel hungry/appetite for a burger)
    3. Buying / consumption:
    – you could – as often said – tax unhealthy foods
    – introduce separate check-out lanes in supermarkets for healthy/unhealthy food (several healthy lanes, that you can only use if you have more healthy than unhealthy items in our shopping cart; and one unhealthy lane, where you have to wait longer…)
    – educate people (especially kids via parents/ schoolteachers, etc.) on the effects of unhealthy eating / obesity / and – most importantly – teach them how to prepare healthy food
    – provide more clarity on the ingredients of a product on the labels (e.g., similar to energy efficiency labels of dishwashers, food could be grouped into 5 categories with large color codes on the outside)
    4. Effect of unhealthy food:
    Help people in doing getting more exercise (without forcing them to do sports/going to the gym, because they won’t maintain that anyway), so encourage people to walk/ride a bike, etc: e.g.,
    – provide bike lanes in the city centers,
    – subsidize buying a bike,
    – higher parking fees in the city center / or (like in London) limit car traffic in the city center anyway (this must of course accompanied by better public transport systems)
    – ensure that bus stops are not to close to each other, so that people are forced to walk
    – get rid of moving staircases (or make them run lower, so that only people how cannot walk well use them)

    Just a couple of thoughts for the discussion – looking forward to hearing your ideas!

  16. avatar
    Paul X


    I think your first suggestion is exactly where this is heading. The driving force behind this will be nothing to do with some feigned concern for the health of EU citizens and more about what can we tax next to get more revenue

    The fact of the matter is the EU institutions spend a lot but generate nothing so they are continually looking for ways to justify more income

  17. avatar

    I can’t fully agree here. Obesity – especially childhood obesity – is a pan European problem and therefore I think it’s wrong to categorically rule out a European solution to this problem.
    The different member states could in my opinion benefit from European best practice sharing and some high level coordination of their measures. Sure, we don’t necessary need a European directive on how to educate parents on how to feed their kids, but when it comes to measures such as food labeling and taxes, I’m sure that most of the European food producers would highly welcome a somewhat coordinated regulation instead of 27 individual regulations and approaches. Otherwise this would result in a severe distortion of competition.

  18. avatar
    Paul X

    here in the UK we already have campaigns aimed at encouraging healthy eating and I imagine other countries have similar, why should one originating in the EU be any more successful than National ones?

    Every country has it’s own eating habits why should Mediterranean countries take notice of politicians from Northern European lecturing them on what they should and should not eat?

    I see it as a waste of EU money (i.e. my taxes) being spent on something that is probably already being done at local level

  19. avatar

    Certainly we need atrtention to the “energy IN” side of the equation, which has taken most of the argument space here. But overweight and obesity is also caused by the sedentary lifestyle we have developed. All the sitting we habitually do, and teach kids to do, is excessive. Sports and other physically active leisure activities can only be a very small part of the solution. The basis of an active lifestyle needs to be what is called “Active Travel” or “Active Transport”. On a daily basis people need to be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity. 60 minutes is better. One of the very best ways to do that EVERY day is by Walking and/or Cycling (some call it WALCYING) to work, to school, to shops, etc. Using public transport daily is good too because one needs to walk at least for part of the trip – and do it on a daily basis.

    The EU’s public health arm (DG SANCO) needs to start doing its job and evaluating the costs to public health of building more roads, bridges etc for private motorized traffic.

    Dr R Rzewnicki,
    European Cyclists’ Federation

  20. avatar

    From another angle I think if we banned all clothes over size 16 we will have cracked it

    • avatar
      Paul X

      “From another angle I think if we banned all clothes over size 16 we will have cracked it”

      By god Streetwalker, I think you have got something there, and because all the fat people will be staying indoors naked it will cure the congestion on the roads and crowds in public places

  21. avatar
    Desmond Whyms

    We need MUCH more rigorous focus on healthy town planning that encourages and protects walking and cycling. Some European towns do well here, but most do not: they need to be named and shamed, and their leaders held to account; as there are real, masssive and tragic consequences to their misguided plans and inaction:

  22. avatar
    Randy Rzewnicki

    Desmond Whyms:
    Delighted to see your document.

    Yes – cities CAN and MUST do more.
    Thanks to a tool called HEAT (Health Economic Assessment Tool ) for cycling, city planners can now be certain they are on the right track and calculate the economic value of the health benefits.
    HEAT is an online tool developed by the World Health Organization (WHO). City planners, bicycle advocates or health officials can feed it with statistical data from their community.
    HEAT then gives the answer to one question: “If X people cycle for Y minutes on most days, what is the economic value of the health benefits that occur as a result of the reduction in mortality due to their physical activity?”
    In short, HEAT translates the health benefits and regular physical activity that cycling provides into hard cash – in a time of shrinking budgets and growing spending on health issues, there’s no stronger argument for politicians.

    WHO is promoting the use of this tool and offers free workshops on it. On Tuesday 11 June 2013 in Vienna a ‘hands on’ training session will be offered by the experts involved in the elaboration of the tool. This is a side event of the Velo-city conference where one symposium (out of many others) will focus on the “Economic quantification of the health benefits of cycling: can it support changes in policy and practice? A review of experiences using WHO Health Economic Assessment Tool (HEAT)”.

    Dr R Rzewnicki,
    European Cyclists’ Federation
    More info on HEAT: http://heatwalkingcycling.org/index.php?pg=cycling&act=introduction
    to register for the free workshop https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?fromEmail=true&formkey=dDR3ZnVxQ1RPbko5VlBxSGVfVzM4Zmc6MA

  23. avatar
    Desmond Whyms

    Thanks Randy, that looks like an excellent tool. How can we make it more mainstream or compulsory in the process of town and road planning?
    In the UK the Public Health movement has been very weak here; there is a network of Directors of Public Health, and their teams, in every local authority area, but there is no robust monitoring and reporting of progress in a way that allows comparison between the star performers and the poor performers. My worry is that your tool will be eagerly adopted by the star performers, but the majority of the population will not benefit if their local governments are not compelled or incentivised to improve their planning for health.

    Thanks was the missing piece of the pictory for Take Action on Active Travel; excellent guidance, but inadequate monitoring and reporting – no “naming and shaming”, and consequently very little meaningful application, just a few tiny islands of excellence, and a continuing obesity epidemic.

  24. avatar
    No name

    Increase tax on those who are overweight using a DEXA scanner to tell. If they have a certain amount of fat that is considered obese, tax them. This extra tax goes towards health care systems to cover the cost of the illnesses that they’ll have. Also put laws in stating that having obese children is tantamount to child abuse.

    What I personally would like, is once over a certain fat ratio and obese, the person is taken in by the state under law, given therapy, diet and exercise programme in a secure facility that ensures weight loss. Or a type of ID has to be shown to buy fatty foods, if the person is over a certain fat ratio, that ID declines them access to fatty foods.

  25. avatar
    Yulia Amariei

    No! We want GMO’s and TTIP! That will surely solve the problem! Problem?! Which problem?! Stupid questions…well, takes courage to set them. :/

  26. avatar
    Marijus Stasiulis

    Obesity is not problem in EU, obesity is result of good living, there are no obese in Africa.
    Of course British are fat, but it is their choice to be fat.
    We don’t need health fascism, we want to do with our bodies what we want.
    We want to to drink, eat, snort and smoke sh#t that we like, it’s our life.
    Do we need government babysiters? Yeah!
    Let’s create “United fridge inspections association”, it is way more important, than making education affordable.

  27. avatar
    Fernanda de Oliveira

    What a question. Of cause it is a problem in Europeus too. Stop GMO, meat and unhealthy fast food; teach to grow your own organic food in schools should be law.

  28. avatar
    Ivan Burrows


    Like America and Europe we have this problem in Great Britain.

    You can tell people eating to much is bad for them but you can’t stop them eating it.

  29. avatar
    Jason Picci

    1.Exact taxes to fund the opening of more US burger and pizza joints (subsidy just like taxes levied on fuel so that non Europeans can thrive with low prices etc). 2.Exact taxes from European citizens to subsidise and fund extensive advertising campaigns in favour of such fast food joints and to promote GM Organisms in food thus destroying native seeds and crops. 3. Choke tax proceeds for public health and hospitals. Malthusian Doctrine and Kalergi plan will do the rest, as set out by the nomenklatura.

  30. avatar
    Mark Jacko Jackson

    Tax unhealthy crap whilst making healthy stuff cheap and make sure people are educated properly – also make it easier for healthy people to get stuff cheaper/easier!

  31. avatar
    Matej Zaggy Zagorc

    How about we stop putting extra sugar in everything? Nearly all processed food has added sugar. I understand that it helps with flavour, but there has to be a better alternative

  32. avatar
    Gatis Gailitis

    Fat tax. They say it doesn’t work but it works in Scandinavia! Good food is cheap and crap is expensive.
    But it will never happen because of lobbied politicians. Junk food manufacturers won’t let them.

  33. avatar
    Mascha Bloemer

    A fat tax on products with sugar andere sweeteners and not abolishing it when it finally works and fast food producers go bankrupt… Interesting, wrote my bachelors thesis about this.

  34. avatar
    Nena Abreu

    Why this question? You know perfectly well where is the problem, starting with food for children, education on TV on a constant basis, and a lot more, MAIN ISSUE HEALTHY FOOD, light, fibres, biologic food and so on are much more expensive, when they should cost less than cookies and lots of industrial ready to eat, full of butter and sugar etc.

  35. avatar
    Tony Kunnari

    Education of human anatomy works well enough. After studies there is no need for other external sources to tell what people should do when they can simply read it from their bodies to begin with. It is really hindsight which allows these extreme results to conjure. When people are able to know where their actions lead them, they can steer the vessel properly in accordance to what they really want.

  36. avatar
    Mariana de Almeida

    Information is everywhere, nowadays – it’s a pitty that it doesn’t always equal the amount of knowledge around…
    There must be an active campaign throughout Europe for a healthy lifestyle. Schools must be sure to serve healthy food. Also, we have plenty of adults who are ill-informed and have children in their charge – society should endeavour to educate them in these matters, through school meetings, TV advertisements and programmes, etc… About the parents who could care less, I wouldn’t know what to do…
    Rising taxes on unhealthy food is one idea, but here’s another: lower the taxes on sports equipment. I know I’d be delighted to see that happen…

  37. avatar
    Chalks Corriette

    When it comes to getting us humans to do anything that we know is better for us, our family and friends, our business and our planet; well, we have a very long way to go. Despite the knowledge we all have about “life in moderation” humans find it hard to take the personal responsibility needed. OK – we are not equally strong, and some humans need help. However, if those that can, did take the lead and behaved responsibly in all aspects of life – there would already be a big positive impact.

    Instead; we do not want to be told what not to do. We do not want to have less of anything to help others that have none of something. We buy more labour saving items than we need, and then need a gym membership to get fit because we have so many labour saving items.

    So many people buy stuff they do not need, with money that could be better directed, to impress a bunch of people that could care less – and then we kid ourselves that it will make us happier!

    More personal responsibility for our actions would be a good place to start. We know what is and is not good for us.

  38. avatar
    Yannick Cornet

    What we need is quality food. That starts with making organic foods available and affordable, and start taxing chemical foods instead of penalising organic producers with cumbersome and expensive certifications. Those doing things right should be rewarded, not penalised.

  39. avatar
    Desmond Whyms

    …yes that is true, but we are not helped in making healthy choices by policies that make ordinary everyday activity either unpleasant or dangerous. Look at the difference in cycling and walking levels between UK and Netherlands; if given safe and pleasant infrastructure people WANT to be more active!

  40. avatar
    Rui Duarte

    More time for lunch. Tax fast food restaurants (tax the restaurant income, NOT THE FOOD: make it a less interesting investment), educate for better food, more begetables. Otherwise, it’s a personal choice. From a social organization point of view, a society with more free time and MORE MEALS TIME might help. Meals are NOT something that happen between work periods.

  41. avatar
    Carlos Em Lisboa

    We need first to know what is the origin behind the obesity , and if there is now medical reason , if its just caused by ” behavior ” each country should think about a programm , how to ” force kindly ” people to loose weight . Then of course it should be teached in school , primarys at best , and it would be nice to have a long term programm and investment for eu-farmes who really produce quality products , and healthy food shouldnt be taxed for maybee about 5 years and then just gradual .

  42. avatar
    Andrew Jones

    how much is a gross burger or ready meal compared to a salad? the price of healthy food is stupid but u can buy crap that looks vaguely like food for a fraction of the price

  43. avatar
    Erjon Disha

    Maybe its time for communism to come back and I’m sure we wont hear for obesity again !

  44. avatar
    Rafael Mendes

    Greeks aint gonna be very fat anymore… there is so much more to do in Europe before this mattern

  45. avatar
    Daniella Jordanni

    Ban GMO, ban foods that come in a box, ban artificial ingredients, ban toxic food coloring, ban synthetic chemicals in the food, encourage people to see a health coach and a nutritional therapist and encourage home cooking…Awww, I forgot – you can’t; so many companies would lose money and then politicians would starve. Impossible!

  46. avatar
    Natasha Colceriu

    obesity is a disease created by society, mainly produced by depression (not denying the genetically inheritance of such predisposition). The problem is directly linked with education, with the creation of campaigns fighting obesity via sport, choosing healthy food & healthy life style, psychological help in case of depression . Fast food industries, mass production and cost cutting of the corporations creating lab food will help obese people to become morbidly obese. Going fwd, the work life of the employees sitting on a chair the whole day in front of PC & the encouragement of overtime will contribute as well to a higher rate of obesity.

  47. avatar
    James Craig Wightman

    It’s a worldwide problem of every nation that has become car dependent. And judging from recent studies in the UK showing how difficult it is for the morbidly obese to reduce weight, if your fat your f&$@®ed.

  48. avatar
    Eiza Jean-Jacques Descayrac

    We should make food and environment sacred. Like this we will eat only quality product for their real price, and use energies without drawbacks. People would naturally loose fat, paying the real cost and respecting nature. This is the only way to be pulled up by understanding and spirituality and not by the main financial trusts who decide on our needs to make profits. Be careful because divisions and wars are also source of major profits for the same interests.

  49. avatar
    Eiza Jean-Jacques Descayrac

    We should make food and environment sacred. Like this we will eat only quality product for their real price, and use energies without drawbacks. People would naturally loose fat, paying the real cost and respecting nature. This is the only way to be pulled up by understanding and spirituality and not by the main financial trusts who decide on our needs to make profits. Be careful because divisions and wars are also source of major profits for the same interests.

  50. avatar
    Vincent Kleijn

    try to make people happy oh and make bad food (candy, potato chips and so on) more expensive and fruits and vegetables cheaper. Believe me it helps! (bad food in the Czech Republic is quite expensive and I didn’t buy anything, yet) Other thing what would be an option is a less amount for your health insurance when you are doing sports!

  51. avatar
    Mircea Badulescu

    Do we know what we are eating? No! 40 years a go, in high school, we did’nt see any fatty colleague. And the gym classes were 2 (for most) to 5 days a week…

  52. avatar
    Irena Leibovici

    Education – in kindrgardedn, in schools, etc. I cannot understand: if someone beat his child, he is not considered a good parent. but if he is making his child a fatty, this is ok? The child cannot protect himself, too! So, PROTECTION of the well-being of the child is not only to oblige the parents tp bring him to the school till a certain age, or not ti beat him, but alos to take care about his health – and bringing a chid to obesity is the root for the obesity duing the entire life!

  53. avatar
    Stefania Portici

    a country of poor consumers there are many obese. A country of workers happy where unemployment is 0-1% even obese disappears. The issue is the right to work, we are always there ‘…… work

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