updated 6/2/2005 11:47:31 AM ET 2005-06-02T15:47:31

About half a million children in Europe are suffering classic middle-aged health problems because they are too fat, according to new estimates released Wednesday.

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Obesity among European children has been on the rise over the last 15 years, but experts are now starting to see the health consequences emerge on a large scale.

In a new analysis presented Wednesday at the start of the European Congress on Obesity, experts reported that the combination of dangerous conditions called “metabolic syndrome” — high blood pressure, raised cholesterol and poor blood sugar regulation — are increasingly being seen alongside childhood obesity.

“The figures suggest that children in the EU could soon be measuring up to their counterparts in the United States, where the numbers affected by the metabolic syndrome doubled from 910,000 to 2 million in less than 10 years,” said the analysis by the International Obesity Task Force, a network of eminent obesity scientists and policy experts.

The group estimated that between 2,000 and 10,000 European children already have the type of diabetes that is usually diagnosed in middle-aged adults.

New EU strategy on diet, exercise
Markos Kyprianou, European Union commissioner for health and consumer protection, outlined plans for a code of conduct to rein in the marketing of unhealthy food to children and broader policy initiatives for agriculture, education and transportation that address the obesity problem.

The European Union will publish a new strategy on diet and exercise before the end of the year and will submit the document to public consultation with the food industry, anti-obesity activists and others to shape a final plan by the end of 2006, Kyprianou said.

The move echoes unprecedented steps taken last year by the World Health Organization, which launched a global strategy on diet and physical activity after health ministers from around the world approved the plan.

Problem may be underestimated
The proportion of children in Europe who were overweight did not change much from 1974-84. The rate started to creep up during the next 10 years, then exploded after 1995, according to figures from the obesity task force.

In Britain, one in five children are overweight or obese, in Spain the figure rises to 30 percent, and in Italy, 36 percent. In the United States, roughly 30 percent of American children are overweight or obese, according to recent studies.

The European statistics on metabolic syndrome in children are based on a conservative estimate of obesity rates in Europe, compared with rates in the United States. The U.S. figures on obesity and metabolic syndrome were then matched in the same proportion to the European numbers to come up with a metabolic syndrome estimate for European children.

“We think we probably underestimated the dimension of the issue,” James said. “We are often accused of exaggerating the estimates, but whenever we do get the actual figures, they turn out to be worse than we expected,” said Dr. Philip James, chairman of the obesity task force.

“This is more than just a warning signal — it is the red light: We need to call a stop to the continuing pressures on children to eat too much and have so little active play,” James said. “We can no longer afford to delay the introduction of strong prevention strategies throughout Europe.”

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