International health chiefs on Tuesday called for urgent changes to public health policies across Europe after a report revealed more than 1.2 million people are dying each year due to problems caused by obesity and being overweight.
In the 53 countries covered by the World Health Organization's (WHO) Europe region, obesity rates have risen by 138 percent in the past 50 years and are linked to a series of cancers and cardiovascular diseases, said the report.
Nearly a quarter of adults are obese in Europe, higher than in any other region except the Americas, the WHO's European office said in its survey.
"Overweight and obesity rates have reached epidemic proportions across the region and are still escalating.
"Raised body mass index is a major risk factor for non-communicable diseases, including cancers and cardiovascular diseases," WHO regional director Hans Kluge said in the report.
The WHO called for policy changes to prevent obesity and promote healthy lifestyles, such as taxing sugary drinks and subsidising healthy foods while limiting the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.
"Policy interventions that target environmental and commercial determinants of poor diet at the entire population level are likely to be most effective at reversing the obesity epidemic," it stated.
Obesity causes at least 13 different types of cancer and is likely responsible for at least 200,000 new cases of cancer per year.
"This figure is set to rise further in the coming years," the report said.
Excess weight and obesity are estimated to cause more than 1.2 million deaths per year, accounting for more than 13 percent of deaths in the region.
The latest comprehensive data available, from 2016, shows that 59 percent of adults and nearly one in three children – 29 percent of boys and 27 percent of girls – are overweight in Europe.
In 1975, 40 percent of European adults were overweight.
The prevalence of obesity among adults has risen by 138 percent since then, with a 21 percent increase between 2006 and 2016.
The report found that the Covid-19 pandemic is also linked to growing waistlines. "Confinements and lockdowns promoted an unhealthy diet or sedentary lifestyle," said the report.
It also revealed further health risks associated with excess weight.
"People living with obesity were more likely to experience severe outcomes of the Covid-19 disease spectrum, including intensive care unit admissions and death," Kluge said.
The authors also noted that the causes of obesity are much more complex than the mere combination of unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.
They warned that modern Europe's highly digitalised societies were also leading to obesity with unhealthy foods and online gaming targeted at children.