When Amsterdam’s obesity rate topped that of the rest of the Netherlands, the city took action. In the early 2000s, a fifth of the city’s children were considered overweight, with 2,000 weighing in as morbidly obese. A program that targets sugary drinks, fast food and sedentary lifestyles helped the city cut those rates 12 percent between 2012 and 2015 — small but notable progress in a fight much of the world is facing today.
Childhood obesity, once the special scourge of wealthy nations, is now a global crisis, with an estimated 41 million children under the age of five now considered overweight or obese. Developing nations are not excluded from this problem, which impacts health, life expectancy and quality of life.
“Obesity impacts a child’s quality of life as they face a wide range of barriers, including physical, psychological, and health consequences,” said Sania Nishtar, a doctor and co-chair of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity. “We know that obesity can impact education attainment, too.”
Amsterdam’s anti-obesity program emphasizes water over sugary juice and soft drinks, promotes after-school activities and bans sponsorships by fast food companies like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Students are allowed only water or milk with their lunches, and schools phased out sugary classroom treats in favor of healthy vegetable snacks. The city also limits sponsorships at sporting events, reducing the influence advertising for energy drinks, sodas and candy can have on young people.
In addition to dietary education and changes, the Amsterdam program promotes healthy sleep habits, noting that inadequate sleep contributes to hormone changes that promote obesity. Lack of exercise is another factor: While previous generations played outside and bicycled everywhere, today children in Amsterdam spend much more time indoors engaged in screen-based activities. The city is investing in youth sports and activities designed to get kids outside and moving.
This approach has been effective even in low-income communities that have been particularly affected by obesity. Many of Amsterdam’s immigrant communities, such as its Turkish and Suriname communities, have developed high rates of obesity since arriving in their new homes, due to the different diet and lifestyle. The city is focusing on health education to help these communities understand the impact of ingredients in packaged Dutch foods, connect with new activities for their children, and make lifestyle changes that benefit the entire family.
Professor Corinna Hawkes, director of the center for food policy at City University, said the Amsterdam program has been successful because it approached the problem from multiple directions. “They weren’t just saying let’s have a soda tax – they were thinking about how people connect with their environment,” she said. “They went to parents and understood their attitudes and engaged in educational programs to change them.”
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