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Study: Obesity rates on the rise among Estonian schoolchildren

Children grilling sausages (Photo is illustrative).
Children grilling sausages (Photo is illustrative). Source: Olev Kenk/ERR

According to a 2022 study by the Estonian National Institute for Health Development (TAI), 31 percent of children in the first, fourth and seventh grades were overweight. Experts are particularly concerned about the rise in proportion of obese children.

The TAI's survey of almost 18,000 children in 203 Estonian schools found that obesity is more common among pupils in the fourth grade and boys. According to the study, one in three boys are overweight in Estonia, as are one in four girls. The proportion of overweight schoolchildren has risen since previous studies, mainly due to an increase in the share classified as obese among those surveyed.

In the 2016 survey, 10 percent of first grade pupils in Estonia were considered obese, while 16 percent were classified as overweight. However, the results from the TAI's 2022 study found that 12 percent of first graders were obese, while the overall proportion of overweight children remained the same.

Among children in the fourth grade, the proportion classified as obese also increased from 12 percent in 2019 to 14 percent in 2022. The 2022 study found that a total of 34 percent of pupils in the fourth grade were overweight.

The 2022 study assessed pupils in the seventh grade for the first time.

The overall situation was slightly better for those in the seventh grade, with 29 percent of students considered overweight and 11 percent obese. Regardless of age, boys were more likely to be overweight than girls according to the survey. This was largely due to the difference in proportion of boys and girls considered to be obese. One in seven boys (15 percent) and one in nine (9 percent) girls were classified as obese in the study.

"This is the third time that we have studied the body mass of Estonia's youngest schoolchildren, and we sadly have to say that the number of overweight children is on the rise. The increase in proportion of obese children is particularly worrying," said Eha Nurk, senior researcher at the Estonian National Institute for Health Development (TAI).

Situation particularly bad for children in rural areas

There are marked differences in the proportion of overweight school pupils across Estonia's different regions. Irrespective of age, the proportion of overweight and obese children is lowest in Harju County. The situation is also slightly better in Tartu County than in the rest of Estonia, the TAI said.

According to the 2022 study, the proportion of overweight children is more pronounced in western and central regions of Estonia than elsewhere in the country. When it comes to place of residence, the highest proportion of overweight and obese pupils in Estonia live in rural areas (30 – 39 percent, depending on age), while this figure is 26-33 percent for those living in small towns and urban settlements.

"These results suggest that large cities and other densely populated areas have better environmental factors for maintaining a normal body weight - whether these are related to the availability of more varied transport options, organized recreational activities, more flexible public transport and light traffic routes, or much more varied food choices in shopping malls," said Nurk.

Obesity is caused by a combination of many different factors ranging from eating and exercise habits over time to the impact of the surrounding environment on lifestyle. One factor the study focused on was whether schoolchildren eat breakfast.

According to the study, one in five first-graders surveyed did not eat breakfast, compared with 23 percent of fourth-graders and 27 percent of those in seventh grade. The proportion of children in the first grade who eat breakfast has fallen by 10 percent in six years. 89 percent of pupils surveyed in 2016 ate breakfast in 2016, while just 79 percent did in 2022. The lowest proportion of breakfast eaters, just 70 percent, were children in the seventh grade.

The Estonian student growth survey is part of the WHO (World Health Organization) European Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI), in which Estonia participated for the third time during the 2021/2022 school year.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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