WHO highlights obesity as a threat to health and the environment at the World Festival of Youth and Students


Opening of “The Environment and Health” session World Festival of Youth and Students

In October 2017, the Russian Federation hosted the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students by the shores of the Black Sea, in the Olympic village of Sochi. Over 25 000 young people and over 10 000 volunteers from more than 100 countries participated in this large international youth event.

The WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Office) participated in the opening of the section of the Festival entitled “The Environment and Health”. Within this section, it also conducted a session dedicated to overweight and obesity, highlighting the threats posed by these conditions to people’s health as well as the planet.

NCDs and adolescents

Professor Veronika Skvortsova, Minister of Health of the Russian Federation, Mr Sergey Yastrebov, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, Dr João Breda, Head of the NCD Office, and Ms Alanna Armitage, Regional Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia of the United Nations Population Fund, opened the section “The Environment and Health”. The speakers discussed various aspects of adolescent health and the role young people can play in protecting their own health, population health and the health of the environment.

“Nearly two thirds of premature deaths and one third of the total disease burden in adults are associated with conditions or behaviours that began in their youth,” said Dr Breda. “By using innovative approaches young people can provide a novel perspective to NCD prevention and control. For example, they can engage with different communities and share information about NCDs, lead programmes to promote healthy behaviours, and contribute to education and awareness initiatives while advocating for high-level policy changes.”

Obesity: a threat to health and the environment

For the first time in human history, overweight and obesity affect more people than underweight. Not only do these conditions pose a threat to the health of individuals and populations, but they also have harmful effects on the environment.

The NCD Office ran a session at the Festival to build participants’ understanding of overweight and obesity as a global health challenge of the 21st century, and to demonstrate the interconnection between obesity, nutrition, physical activity, the environment and sustainable development.

Obesity may lead to severe consequences and to premature mortality from heart diseases and stroke, diabetes and several cancers. In the 1980s, just over 5 million children and adolescents were considered obese. Now, this figure exceeds 60 million. Most of them will not outgrow obesity.

Unhealthy nutrition and physical inactivity are the key risk factors of overweight and obesity. Importantly, there is also a complex interconnection between obesity, the health of the environment and climate change.

Unhealthy and unbalanced diets – those with too much fat, sugar and salt, and with a lack of vitamins, micronutrients and fibres notably due to low intake of fruit and vegetables – are harmful for people’s health. These types of diets have a direct impact on the agriculture sector and what it produces. This in turn affects the environment, as the agriculture sector, including the livestock industry, is the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas emitter after the energy sector. It is also the biggest driver of both climate change and loss of biological diversity.

Insufficient physical activity is one of the leading factors for disability and premature mortality worldwide. Regular physical activity of moderate intensity, such as walking, cycling or doing sports, has significant benefits for both health and the environment. People using active means of mobility in their everyday lives – pedestrians and cyclists – contribute to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions caused by the transportation sector. Thus, by burning some calories and improving their own health, they also contribute to environmental protection.

Towards the achievement of Sustainable Development Goals

The session concluded by emphasizing the close relationship between different aspects of sustainable development, such as health and the environment. Obesity and its key risk factors of unhealthy diets and physical inactivity are just a small part of this complex set of interconnections.

Building the awareness of young people on the issues of sustainable development is an essential aspect of the work of United Nations agencies. “Young people have a tremendous role to play in transforming our societies for the future we want by taking actions and protecting population health and the planet,” said Dr Breda. “They play a tremendous role in driving forward the Sustainable Development Goals.”