At least seven European countries now challenge the United States in size — at least around the waistline. In a group of nations from Greece to Germany, the proportion of overweight or obese men is higher than in the U.S., experts said Tuesday in a major analysis of expanding girth on the European continent.
"The time when obesity (search) 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 Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Malta and Slovakia, a higher percentage of men are obese or overweight than the estimated 67 percent of men in the United States, according to a report from the International Obesity Task Force (search), a coalition of researchers and institutions.
The analysis was released as the 25-nation European Union announced an initiative to enlist the food and marketing industries in the fight against fat.
Obesity is especially acute in Mediterranean countries, underscoring concerns that people in the southern region are turning away from the traditional diet of fish, fruits and vegetables to fast food high in fat and refined carbohydrates.
In Greece, for example, 38 percent of women are obese, compared with 34 percent in the United States, the group said.
Even in countries with low rates of obesity, troubling trends are emerging. In France, obesity in women rose from 8 percent in 1997 to 11.3 percent in 2003, and from 8.4 percent to 11.4 percent in men.
The change in diets, which the obesity task force said has occurred over the past two decades, affects children most because it is reflected in school lunches.
The task force estimated that among the EU's 103 million youngsters the number of those overweight rises by 400,000 each year. More than 30 percent of children ages 7 to 11 are overweight in Italy, Portugal, Spain and Malta, it said.
That matches estimates for American children. Among American adults, about two-thirds are overweight or obese; nearly one-third qualify as obese.
The International Obesity Task Force, which is advising the European Union, had 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 indicated that may be an underestimate, according to the group.
To counter the worsening trend, the EU is pushing a united effort from the food and marketing industries, consumer groups and health experts.
"The industry is being challenged to demonstrate, transparently, that it is going to be part of the solution," Philip James, chairman of the IOTF 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," he added.
The food industry says it will better inform consumers with detailed nutrition labels. The EU office also wants tastier healthy foods to compete with high-calorie, non-nutritious fare.
Studies have shown that being 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," EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou said.