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Europeans' Mirth Over Girth Ends

The proportion of overweight or obese men is higher in some European countries than it is in the United States, experts said Tuesday in a major analysis of Europeans' expanding girth.

The International Obesity Task Force estimated that Finland, Germany, Greece, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Malta have all now exceeded the United States' 67 percent in overweight or obese males.

"The time when obesity was thought to be a problem on the other side of the Atlantic has gone by," said Mars Di Bartolomeo, Luxembourg's Minister of Health.

In Greece, 38 percent of women are obese, compared with 34 percent in the United States.

The report was released at the launch of the 25-nation EU's plan for action on the problem in its member states.

The International Obesity Task Force, a global coalition of obesity scientists and research centers advising the European Union, had previously estimated in 2003 that about 200 million of the 350 million adults living in what is now the European Union may be overweight or obese.

However, a closer evaluation of the figures in the latest analysis indicates that may be an underestimate of the scale of the problem, according to the group.

Studies have shown that being even slightly overweight can dramatically increase the risk of certain diseases, such as diabetes. Obesity is also linked to heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, respiratory disease, arthritis and some types of cancer.

"We can have disastrous effects from (obesity) on health and the national economy," said EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou.

Up to 8 percent of the current health care costs in the EU can be attributed to the effects of being overweight or obese, he said.

To counter the worsening trend, the EU is banding together with the food and marketing industries, consumer groups and health experts, and it plans to assess national and industry efforts to counter the trend.

It is the EU's monitoring of the food industry's efforts that makes the European Union's approach to the obesity problem "totally novel," said Philip James, chairman of the International Obesity Task Force which advises governments around the world on how to tackle the problem.

"The industry is being challenged to demonstrate, transparently, that it is going to be part of the solution," James said in a telephone interview after the launch of the program in Brussels.

"They have to say how much more money they will add to help solve the obesity problem. They have to put forward a plan on how exactly they are going to contribute year by year, and their contribution has to get bigger every year."

The food industry hopes to better inform consumers by offering detailed nutrition labels and customer care lines. The EU head office also wants the industry to produce healthier, tastier foods to compete with high-fat, high-sugar foods.

But the problem is not limited to the adult population.

The IOTF estimates that among the EU's 103 million youngsters the number of overweight children rises by 400,000 each year. More than 30 percent of children aged between 7 and 11 are overweight in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Malta.

Nutrition is a huge concern in the Mediterranean countries. According to the IOTF, Spain's classic Mediterranean diet of fruit and fish has developed into a diet full of meat, high-fat foods and lots of sugars in the span of 20 years. The change affects children most because they are fed the new diet for lunch at school.

Some anti-obesity projects have already shown their value.

In 1992, Fleurbaix et Laventie, a town of some 2,500 people in France, began a pilot program to fight obesity in children. At school, children prepared fruit and vegetables. At home, they gave nutritional materials to their parents so that everyone could eat better. Local restaurants and businesses even participated to get the word out and offer more healthy alternatives. There are no longer any obese children in Fleurbaix et Laventie.