«Unhealthy eating and sedentarity during childhood sadly set up kids to a future of being overweight or obese»Margherita Gulino, medical doctor and specialist in hygiene and preventive medicine
Obesity is an illness that may have many different causes, from physical to psychological ones, and they often merge to create a complex pathology that is difficult to cure and that has many negative effects on the individual and on society. Margherita Gulino, medical doctor and specialist in hygiene and preventive medicine, is the director of the Prevention Department of the ASL (Local Health Authority) TO5 and director of the Italian Food Standards Agency of Turin, explains how the Italian Health Service is trying to prevent the insurgence of obesity starting from education of children and adults.
Obesity in children and adults: data from the WHO and ASL surveillance
Obesity is one of the most common pathologies of our century, and it can be found in every social group. «According to WHO data, sadly, in the age group between 5 and 19 there are 50 millions of obese females and 74 millions of obese males» Gulino observes, highlighting the gravity of the situation for up to 124 millions of children who find themselves at risk of chronic and degenerative pathology at such a young age.
To keep the growing number of obesity in check, Italy activated a surveillance system carried out by individual Local Health Authorities. The last study was conducted in 2019, and results were not encouraging: Italy has a high amount of overweight and obese children. «20% of school age children was overweight, and 9% obese.»
These studies were not carried out just to have a snapshot of obesity percentages in the population. «Data was used to plan primary prevention projects on these risk factors to improve the health of children. But this surveillance also sheds some light on the familiar context, as we involve parents too.»
The importance of information: teaching good eating habits to families
Pathologies such as obesity may come from wrong eating habits that were passed on from parents to their children. «Not all of our children have breakfast, and if they do it is often incorrect. Usually they eat snacks that have low nutrients but high calories such as fatty sweets or sweetened drinks.»
This is why the Turin Local Health Authority designed many projects precisely for schools. «We carried out multidisciplinary and synergistic tasks with institutes, town administrations and families to offer education courses» Gulino explains. «Children learn faster than adults, and they carry what they learn with them to their families. If we teach a kid, we reach their parents and grandparents too.»
Each project proposed by the ASL TO5 is aimed at teaching good eating habits, how to read food labels and the value of physical activity. Often, children are better than adults at these tasks. «We created a game where kids are better than adults to find “bad” ingredients in food labels» Gulino says, highlighting the ability of children to acquire life skills that will prove useful during adulthood.
Overcoming obesity through prevention
In the prevention clinic, Gulino often meets people that are clinically healthy, and works to prevent them from developing eating disorders. The control period lasts a minimum of 6 months and, through a multidisciplinary team, gives people the means to keep their weight in check and to manage their eating choices in complete autonomy. «By acquiring the right information, we give kids and their families a tailor-made plan.»
But the work of the ASL TO5 doesn’t stop at school and individual projects, as it also includes services to the community. For example, it monitors and assesses the food served by the canteens to “delicate groups“ in schools and nursing homes. «We assess whether the menus offered by companies are good, at least on a qualitative and quantitative basis, and we verify if they comply to the essential levels of nutrients; furthermore we verify that structures are safe and provide the declared food» Gulino adds.
To fight the epidemic of obesity, there are solutions that are more effective than drastic ones. Prevention is extremely effective as it stops people from internalising wrong ideas and then allows them to have a headstart on having a healthy life starting from childhood. The work of Gulino and of ASL TO5, both on an individual and community level, is key because correct eating habits are often forgotten by this frenetic society, in favour of fast, caloric food that lacks quality.